splitting an infinitive

Why not?

Well these days (as opposed to a hundred (good to one sig fig) year period of conservatism around which the language is fluid as hell) that’s maybe not a useful question. We do what we please with English and the language is sort of famous for surviving it. For a long time, however, and currently amongst the sort of pedant that has a strong opinion about Oxford commas, the split infinitive was Not Allowed.

But English is really good for splitting infinitives.

The infinitive form of a verb is its naked form, unconjugated. So in English the infinitive “to go” is conjugated as “she goes, we go, they go, you go”. That infinitive is apparently never allowed to have a word inserted between “to” and “go”. It’s to be treated as though it’s un-fucking-divisible. A single word with a space inside it that apparently acts like a letter.

This is, I think, mostly an effort at linguistic political correctness to avoid drawing attention to the fact that many (maybe most) lesser languages do not have this feature. Their infinitives (aller, for example, en Français) are really one word. Which means they do not have the tonal equivalent of “to boldly go” which delivers a mood distinct (to my ear anyway) from “boldly to go” or, worse, “to go boldly”. It’s perhaps the proscription itself that lends this tone (which totally undermines my argument by making the proscription necessary in order to have the feature) by undermining the formality of the “correct” structures. Kirk in the Star Trek opener is established by his linguistic choice as an everyman who doesn’t give a rat’s ass about ancient style guides nor, by extension, Robert’s Rules of Order. We know in our viscera before we even see him that he’s a hero we get to aspire to be. He shirked his way through college and the academy (which later we find out is true). He must have.

And some infinitive busting structures don’t even have correct variants. Consider “I’m going to fucking shoot you in the face.” It’s distinct from “I’m going to shoot you in the fucking face” in that the rude word modifies face instead of shoot. And obvious you can’t say “I’m going fucking to shoot you in the face.” Then you just get laughed at. You’ve descended below the low bar of lovable rogue to incomprehensible villain. “I’m fucking going to shoot you in the face” is weird acceptable, modifies the wrong word, and seems like a grammatically worse choice than splitting the infinitive even though it’s fine. It’s more of a hipster bandit move; an attempt to get you to argue with their usage so they can produce evidence it’s correct. Before shooting you in the face.

So let me suggest that we need not be polite to our compatriot languages who are stuck with indivisible verbs. Our verbs are naturally divisible and this division begs for modifiers. Every space is a possibility for a slightly different tone. It does not invite confusion but rather establishes the writer’s intent clearly and efficiently. The space in the middle of our infinitives is a tool to be wielded however we like to use tools.

Of course, once we get to this point we have to wonder what the “to” is for anyway. What does “to go” mean, decomposed? What work does the “to” do? In the phrase “I’m going to go” it seems to have more to do with “going” than “go” to my ear. That is, as the sentence proceeds, “I’m going to…” is still sensible — I’m certainly going somewhere and to is a somewhere word. I’m going to the store. I’m going to outer space. I’m going to sleep. The “to” is independent — it doesn’t need a verb at all to be useful.

So rather than knuckle under to linguistic equivalentists who would hobble English in order to put it on equal footing withe French or, heaven forbid, Latin, let’s instead celebrate the feature of the English infinitive. Split it at will. It’s already split.

Diaspora testing still happens every week

In the current testing form for Anabasis, the rules for a check are something like: ref declares a risk, then player rolls |d6-d6| and add your skill. If you have a relevant specialization, add another 1. Index on the table:

  • 0 — fails and always generates a new risk from the 6
  • 1-2 — fail, risk realized
  • 3-5 — success, risk realized
  • 6+ — success, no risk

Now, this means that very often risks are realized. So there’s another rule: if you take a stress point, you can increase your roll by one. Take more if you like. Now as your stress goes up you start getting character quirks that could be troublesome, so there’s no “win” here — either the risk is realized (you’re still successful at what you tried unless you roll 2 or lower) or you start to get burdened with Compulsion and Bad Judgement and so on. The ref starts needling you with “the inactivity is agitating you” and “even though there’s a battle going on you are highly distracted by the electrical system under the dash, which doesn’t look properly grounded”.

Both of these have the same purpose: they generate new and unexpected trouble. The big difference is that the risk is in the hands of the ref and the stress effects are in the hands of the player.

abadyos
He looks a little stressed out, no?

An example: Abadyos is trying to fly an unfamiliar shuttle through the atmosphere of a has giant. He faces a roll with the risk REVELATION — something heretofore unknown will be brought to light and it won’t be something good for the characters. Abadyos makes his roll with a total of 4. So he could spend 2 stress to get past the risk or he could just suffer the risk realization. In either case he has a success: he’s going to successfully fly this flight path through the gas giant’s strange atmosphere.

So this is a pivot: either way the story is likely to take a new direction. We’re not just flying to Haifeng the dirigible city any more.

Abadyos’ player chose the stress. He was under severe stress once before and compulsively disassembled and knolled part of the medbay, which was a problem for weeks. This stress has no immediate effect, but later, agitated waiting for a stealthy resolution of another problem, he decides to make a Bad Decision (a stress effect) and burst through doors he knows are guarded.

Acting on his stress is something that was up to the player. I cued it, prodding with declarations about the character’s internal state, but the player declared the action. In the past I would have been skeptical about such a purely social mechanism and wanted to mechanize it with points and a meter to manage or something like that. Maybe I just have great players, but this mechanization appears to be unnecessary. Some players are happy to take the cue and make their lives harder. They recognize that they bought the trouble by spending stress points. They know they should make good on the purchase.

If he’d chosen the REVELATION, a bad choice of rocket operation parameters would have ignited part of the gas giant’s atmosphere, pointing a giant arrow at the characters who are trying to hide. Now this is my space as ref: I am being asked to ad lib a major change in plot direction. It’s similar to the stress situation in that in both cases someone has a new creative burden with loose but clear direction: you character is agitated and impulsive and prone to making bad decisions right now or, in the case of the risk, the ref is mandated to create a new fact that changes the direction of the game.

I used to feel I had to mechanize things like this further, but someone pointed out to me that the fiction has its own weight. That there are things that need no further rules because they have a fictional presence that can only be responded to in a limited fashion within the context of the rest of the fiction. If you have a rope, you can do rope things. You don’t need a rule for every possible use of rope. We know what rope is for, and the current context of the fiction establishes the limits of what rope can do. You can write rules for it if you want, but you can get away with startlingly few when we’re talking about something everyone understands deeply. Rope. Agitation. Impatience.

I recognize that this is not necessarily a popular direction. But I think you will like it — maybe love it — because where Diaspora Anabasis puts its effort in mechanically is the setting creation and the character creation. We mechanize the establishing context and then inject deviations and obstacles. I think this is consistent with the original vision of Diaspora and it’s certainly consistent with how I plan and run a game.

You may notice this is similar to the Soft Horizon system and it is. It’s tuned for a different purpose and the dice are different, but the core method is the same. So far this is because it really really works for me. That could be the kiss of death commercially.

Blast from the past: Safety and the Inversion of Folk Logic

Another yoink from Blue Collar Space circa 2011.

Hurray, Brad is going to talk about his field of expertise instead of game design! Well, this is supposed to be a blog about technical things that interest me and games are just a branch of that (yes, games are technical — a technology — and I can blather about that another time if you like) so I’m not averse to going fairly far afield. And who knows, it might be the case that if I ramble long enough I somehow come back around to games anyway.

I was walking from the train station to work this morning and encountered four interesting cases of really crappy risk analysis — three real and one hypothetical. One was accompanied by an epithet that told me exactly why humans are so bad at risk analysis and, at the same time, why safety design is such a counter-intuitive process. It has to do with the fact that humans think in terms of acceptable risk. In a way, safety design looks from the other side of the glass.

Consider standing at the train platform. There’s a 50cm-wide yellow stripe right at the lip of the platform before it falls vertically to the guideway proper, which is where the train is going to be. I have seen children (and older) stand in the yellow zone and, as the train zooms in, tell their parents it’s perfectly safe, presumably using their survival as evidence. This is logic we expect of children, of course, which is to say, flawed. Deeply flawed.

An evidential argument for safety (I didn’t die that time, or even, no one has died yet) is inadequate. I mean, it’s adequate for you but it’s not adequate for design. You see, that yellow bar does not (again, by design) say, “If you stand here you risk injury or death.” I know, you think it does, and the sign says that, but that’s not how it’s designed and so you are misled into thinking it’s too conservative somehow. You’ve stood in the yellow a hundred or a thousand times and never once been killed.

Rather what it says is, “If you stand on your side of the yellow zone and not in it or, obviously, in the guideway on the other side, then you are as safe as we can make you, which is pretty bloody safe.” That is, technologically, we don’t really know the risk of standing in the yellow zone because it depends a lot on freak configurations of the train, your own stability, and in most cases of actual fatality, whether or not you are wearing a backpack(1) So we don’t try to calculate that. Instead we find a  space where, barring some bizarre circumstance, you are certainly safe. Then we mislabel it so you can deride it in front of your parents or friends.

Here are some other examples drawn from my morning walk. You will notice a recurring theme that is both hilarious and insane and perfectly common. I’ll try to remember to point it out at the end.

The traffic signal that indicates it is okay to walk sometimes displays an orange hand instead of a white or green walking guy. This hand does not mean, “you will be killed if you cross now”, or even “you can reasonably expect cars to be passing through your path now”. It means, “You no longer have been granted safe passage.” That is, it’s the default case and not a special case. The special case is the green guy, which reads, “Okay, it’s your turn now, and crossing at this time and place is as safe as we can make it.” Any time the green guy is not present, it’s a bad idea to cross. I watched a woman in a dreadful hurry cross on the orange hand this morning (and ours has a countdown on it which, even if you read safety warning backwards, can reasonably be read as how many seconds until you are totally dead) with the counter to fatality at 4 seconds. She was dressed darkly and small. She fell (also running heels, but also not running very well) in the middle of the road with two seconds to spare, basically disappearing from sight for many drivers. She was not killed. It was still stupid on several levels.

A crowded sidewalk is a crappy place to ride you bike at high speed. You aren’t especially in danger, but the sort of sociopathy that lets bike riders think this is okay is completely beyond me. You are violating a core premise of the safety design (there won’t be any high speed vehicles on this space ever) and making what should be a certainly safe space no better than the road. Yes, you did not injure or kill anyone. Well done. Fuck you.

I’ve never seen anyone blow through a train crossing with the bar down, but I think people don’t do it mostly out of an aversion to destroying things like the bar or scratching their vehicle. Or maybe they just avoid violating custom or even law. But I did hear a driver loudly proclaim that there was tons of time between the bar coming down and the train going by. He could totally have made it! The bar does not say, “It is certainly unsafe to proceed”. Rather when the bar is up, the message is, “Don’t worry, it’s safe now.” The bar down says, “We can’t guarantee anything.”  There’s a reason why level crossings in Texas often have webcams that the public can view and it’s not a pleasant one. Texas is one of the best places to get killed by a train you think you’re probably safe from. Yay freedom!

People are not stupid. They are badly equipped to manage risk, though, and certainly others have spoken more authoritatively than I can about that. What you can do is recognize that you are bad at managing risk and work within that envelope. Then the risk you manage is, judging by the hurry out there, being late for an appointment. Here’s how I manage that risk: I set the alarm 15 minutes early, and then I don’t run for anything but sport.

–BMurray
(1)Backpacks are an awesome way to piss people off and also get yourself killed. I’m pleased to see a decline in their popularity after so many years of seeing them everywhere. Here’s the problem: a stuffed backpack is an extra 20-50cm of space protruding from your body that is completely outside the limits of your proprioception. You have no instinctive knowledge of where that thing is. That’s why you’re always banging it into people (and you are, even if you don’t think you are, and you don’t think you are for the same reason) and occasionally hanging it over the yellow zone and into the guideway. 

Blast from the past: The Hovercraft Parable

This has been recovered from the Blue Collar Space archives, circa Christmas 2010.

Recently a new chapter has been added to the story about the role-playing game publishing industry dying. The “death” is mostly a way to interpret the steady failing of big reliable game lines and the steady success of small endeavours with small goals by peers using technology from front to back. I think a modern parable is in order.

One day I was heading home from work, got off the train, and went to the bus stop for the last leg of my journey. Standing at the stop and looking north, I see a huge construction project in progress. This looks like it is going to be some kind of very sturdy multi-storey concrete building, like a parking tower or an industrial warehouse. They are working on finishing the second floor.

What they are doing, specifically, is laying down concrete and smoothing it flat. I don’t get that this is what’s happening right away, because what I see is three guys laughing their heads off. They are laughing because they are each sitting on a chair that looks like it is mounted on a pair of downward-pointing fans, and skidding around all over the structure at high speed.

They are surfacing the concrete by riding around on one-person hovercraft.

My first thought is that I would pay to do this. In fact, I am pretty sure that if they sold tickets for twenty bucks to give you half an hour on the hovercraft-chair, there would be a line-up around the block. The surface would get done and someone would make a packet and a half doing it. There’s even a built-in audience — about half the people waiting for the bus are watching the well-paid union labourers ride and thinking pretty much the same thing as I am. “Goddamn, what I really want to be doing right now is giving one of those guys twenty bucks and then barrel around on a hovercraft.”

There are probably many obstacles (insurance, quality of work, marketing, licensing, simple convention) but only one is really insurmountable. The union would never go for it.

 

orbital mechanics

While tinkering with the technology levels in Diaspora Anabasis, we had an interesting opportunity disguised as a problem.

Technology level 0 means no space travel. There are six different oracles to explain this (and of course you can invent your own) but only the space travel bit is interesting here.

Technology level 1 is early space travel requiring huge resources if there’s a gravity well. Chemical rockets.

Technology level 2 is commercial space travel, more advanced rockets.

Technology level 3 introduces the slip drive but not much more.

Technology level 4 is even better drives but so what?

Technology level 5 is magical tech. Crazy off the wall unpredictable tech. It’s peak technology just before a civilization disappears.

So the problem with this is that level 4 is not actually differentiated much from 3. So here’s my idea. From tech level 1-3 rockets have efficiencies such that you can only practically travel most places inside a system using orbital mechanics. At tech level 4 you get so efficient that you can just do a Traveller-style constant burn, turn over, constant burn pattern to anywhere you want to go.

I’m pretty sure most of my audience knows what this means but let’s spell it out.

Right now in the real world we are bound by orbital mechanics when we go into space because we don’t have rockets efficient enough to just point at our destination and burn. Instead we steal energy from the orbits of planets and pay for it in time.

you orbiting home
Orbiting your home, A, you are moving really fast along A’s orbit and also pretty fast around A to stay in orbit.

Any body in orbit is travelling at some huge velocity at right angles to the sun at any given time. It’s basically falling on a ballistic trajectory forever, continuously missing the sun. So as soon as you get out of the gravity well and into orbit around your starting point, you’re already travelling super fast with respect to the sun.

you orbiting the sun
Escaping A and now just in orbit around the sun. Relatively cheap on fuel.

If you accelerate a bit in the direction of orbit or away from the direction of orbit, you’ll escape from your planet and be orbiting the sun instead of the world. You’ll be pretty much travelling alongside the world, but you’re now revolving the sun alone instead of the world and the sun. This is a relatively cheap burn.

Now you can spend energy to slow down or speed up. If you speed up, your orbit will descend towards the sun, allowing you to intersect (if you time it well) with an inner planet and be captured by its gravity. If you slow down, your orbit will ascend outwards from the sun, allowing you to intersect with an outer planet and be captured by its gravity.

you slowing down
Speeding up to go visit B in a closer orbit. Your new orbit is elliptical.
you later
So you wait until you get around here. Notice everything else is moving too.
Canvas 5
Then you burn a little here, slowing a little, to make your orbit closer to circular.
Canvas 6
Then you coast a little, burning no fuel, until you get inside B’s capture radius.
Canvas 7
And make another little burn to start orbiting B. Now you can launch your interface vessels!

 

This is a cheap way to travel but since you are coasting most of the time the following things are true:

  • Your travel times are much longer than if you can burn directly
  • You are at the mercy of the orbits — if you orbit doesn’t intersect your target right away you might have to go around the sun a couple of times. This could get old fast. So could you (though at the usual rate).
  • Most of your time is spent in micro-gravity

This is the sense in which you buy energy for time: you don’t need a whole lot of delta-v (your capacity to change your velocity, mostly measured in how much reaction mass you have to spend) to use orbital mechanics, but you do need to spend some time in transit and you have to plan if you want to minimize that time. Of course what I’m thinking about now is how to mechanize this so that it’s at least roughly realistic but also simple and fun. It’s a bonus for me that this introduces a lot of meaningful downtime — this can then be a phase of play, introducing projects and healing opportunities as a feature of simply travelling from A to B.

Generally your pattern is this: you decide you want to go to B from A. You sit around at A and check your charts and computers and determine when the best time to leave is in order to minimize your total wait time (sitting around before launch + coasting between the planets) and also get a course that’s within your ship’s delta-v limits. Then you wait your WAIT TIME (a downtime period that takes place on planet). Then you launch and do your initial burns. Then you wait your COAST TIME (another downtime period but it takes place on your ship). Then you do your terminal burns and arrive at B.

And now that we have a pattern, we can start to dream up ways to mechanize it and keep it fun. Well I can anyway, in a vague sort of way. Watch this space and look for actual rules to start showing up at our Patreon page.

Now this also implies that using slipknots is pretty expensive and maybe requiring very specific ship designs at T3 — you just don’t get any benefit from orbital velocities when you need to stop at a stationary point in space 2500 light seconds above the star. You are going to have to pretty much cancel your orbital velocity by the time you hit the slipknot and also accelerate there and decelerate before arrival — I think you’ll be taking a kind of rising spiral to the knot (please correct me if I’m wrong) and it’s going to chew up a lot of delta-v. Tech level 3 might be really very interesting indeed as it deviates from tech level 4! Slip capable ships might be defined as having very high delta-v capabilities, sacrificing other capabilities. If you want to blockade a slipknot at T3, your optimum strategy might be to build warships at the slipknot and jump them through where they stay, not having enough delta-v to endanger the system proper but rather just able to station-keep and act as a massive weapons platform. This introduces a whole new set of stories — the old Diaspora stories were all the same when slip is introduced but now we have two distinct narratives around slipknot travel, the orbital mechanics story (T3) and the direct burn story (T4+). I think that’s pretty cool.

helping people in distress is hard

In times of trouble, at least when you let people know you’re in trouble, people who love you will say “is there anything I can do?” or “if I can do anything please call.” It is meant with the best intentions. It’s heartening to hear people declare that they are in your corner. And when your trouble isn’t really all that bad it’s innocuous. I do it. Everyone does it. It’s like asking “how are you?” in a way — it’s polite but not necessarily an actual invitation. And when you’re in genuine trouble you need that invitation to be real.

When trouble is really bad it can become a new stressor. I will decline your help for a couple of reasons.

First, I have no intention of imposing on you. You’re my friend and I feel as much compulsion to make your life easier as you feel for me.

20181109_183233
Couch needs a vacuuming for starters. If you can get the cat off it.

Second, the kinds of things I really need help with you don’t want to do and I would never ask you to do. I need the whole house cleaned. I need someone else to take over my household needs for a week so I can go somewhere else for a while. I need seven million dollars, give or take.

Finally, the onus is now on me to imagine things that I need, that are within your means, and that I think you would actually not mind doing. That puts an emotional burden on me that I really don’t need. It’s vastly easier for me to politely decline than to think up something in that narrow intersection of constraints that would really help.

Now, look: I love you. I understand and appreciate the sentiment. We all say it at some point and it feels like the right thing to say and it really often is. And it’s soothing to say — it releases one from a burden in a way. You know, you’ve offered, you’ve made yourself available (hypothetically). And when things are really bad, you’re kind of flailing: you know you can’t really help with things of a certain magnitude so you reach for something to say, anything, to indicate that you’re a friend and you want things to be better. I love all of that.

When someone is in dire need, here’s something you can do that doesn’t create that burden. It’s something that people used to do a lot in these circumstances but since our culture has become more about remote means of communication than physical interaction, it seems to have died off. You can just do something without asking what the person needs. It can be almost invisibly tiny and still have enormous impact.

My neighbour rang my bell the other day to say all the right things because she’d read about my trouble on Facebook. And she gave me a hug. I’ve been living alone for two weeks and I am a very physically affectionate person. I am a hugger. That hug genuinely made things better.

A friend who was in town for a visit gave me frequent hugs (because he knows) and also came with me to visit my wife in the hospital. And he didn’t ask how he could help, leaving me to invent the idea of joining me at the hospital. He said “I want to visit Jack; can I come with you?” Someone being with you when it’s hard shares the burden. It’s easier. It makes things better. He bought dinner and let me buy dinner. He let me be alone when I needed it and he respected my boundaries regarding my home and my embarrassments and my privacy. That’s some hard shit to do well, let alone perfectly. But the crux of it is: he just did things.

My mother, who lives across the country, would have been at my home every day. She couldn’t so from that great distance she found something practical to do anyway: she sent some cash. Now cash doesn’t fix every problem and in my case it’s not really necessary since I have a swell job, but cash is also always welcome. It relieves some stress. It lets me make a dumb choice with no repercussions just to make my life easier for a while. An expensive dinner, maybe, or some flowers. Cash seems crass but it’s powerful and practical.

20190618_172127
This is actually potatoes dauphinoise and not a casserole. Well, I guess it’s a potato and cream casserole. Fine it’s a casserole.

So next time you’re in this situation, consider not reflexively offering to help. A simple statement of solidarity, of camaraderie, of compassion is better. And if you really, really want to help, just do it. Drop by with a casserole: people under high stress are probably not eating right. This is why after the funeral everyone brings food. It’s actual help and it doesn’t require that the receiver do any work. Staying after to clean up is golden as well.

And that’s the heart of it: when the stress is really over the boiling point the one thing you do not need is more work. Everything seems like it’s too much, that it’s more than you can handle. Lift one of those things without adding any new ones. Just pick one. And if you have no idea what would help, I guarantee prepared food will never be remiss.

PS. You haven’t done anything wrong. The “how can I help” reaction is normal and compassionate. Everyone does it. It just carries a burden most people never have to think about and don’t analyze when they do. Much love to knife wife on Twitter for pointing it out — I couldn’t have put it into words without her raising it. It was like a light going on.

clusters

From Slipdrive Operation and Theory: A History

… Though there is some variability correlating to the mass of the star, the placement of Slipknots is remarkably consistent across the cluster, and this remains unexplained. They are positioned roughly 2500 light seconds perpendicular from the system’s ecliptic, and always paired, like the poles on a magnet. (Models suggest that the slipknot at a location without a central mass would occupy a single point and would entangle; see Armster 5324-WEM.) If they are naturally occurring phenomena, then the physics by which they are generated remains unexplained. If they were designed, then it was with a technology for which there has been no archaeological attestation (see also Slipknot Worship and Slipknots, Destabilization of).

The physics in each system in the cluster are identical. This is the best evidence that the systems are all part of the same universe, though Carradine and Zhang-Sho argue that even this is uncertain (3318-JFM). To date, it has proved impossible to match the stars visible from any system with those in another, and therefore the most conservative speculation is that each system is at least outside the observable universe of all others. Ochek therefore believed that the slipknots were designed to enable specifically intergalactic transport (4007-HRW). Efforts in the Fourth Millennium to expand the cluster by the Maltus Foundation were successful in adding Gawlinski Prime but documentation from that period is fragmentary and no similar expedition has achieved results.

Scientists are unable to disprove the existence of other clusters. …

Here’s a nice little piece of fiction from Toph Marshall for Diaspora Anabasis. This was never explicit in Diaspora but was always in my head: this is the “out”, the “hard” in our science fiction. It’s how faster-than-light travel works without violating other fundamental (or at least intuitive) rules.

It’s a common canard that you can have causality or faster-than-light travel but not both. But if the end points are not observable then they are functionally in different universes and there’s no causality to violate. There’s no causal interaction between the two points except the travel itself.

This little piece of fiction does more than just that though, as all the best micro-fic does. Aside from the obvious (there are slipknots, there are in this location) it also establishes that much of science in this setting is actually archaeology: no matter what the locals discover it’s probably been discovered before and (functionally) nearby. Half of high energy physics here is decoding ancient texts on high energy physics. All fields have the same sort of reverance of artifacts, dependence on linguistics, and possibly a religious component because the last civilization’s texts are the fastest route to recovering that technology. It’s as though Atlantis really did, certainly, exist. And it had starships.

I really dig that mood, the injection of the humanities into the sciences in a concrete way. A new archaeological dig is instantly of interest to biologists and chemists and physicists and mathematicians. No one can afford to be ignorant of ancient cultures.

And it must also become something of a crutch, stagnating original research. How much of your life would you spend on developing a new theory for high energy physics when it could be invalidated (or validated) by one new discovery on a remote moon of the local gas giant.