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361vas - Misc

361vas - Misc

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Misc. Verbiage & Other Sundry Tales
Misc. Verbiage & Other Sundry Tales

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03/18/2014

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Misc. Verbiage & Other Sundry Tales
Jim Vassilakos (jimv@uia.net)
In the Life of Jim

It's been a summer of travel, first to Taiwan where my wife's parents held a massive hometown reception for their two daughters who'd both gotten married during the previous two years. This involved going around from table to table and drinking numerous glasses of Chinese beer. \u2022Hic\u2022 However, the highlight of the trip, at least for me, was a visit to the national library in Taipei. What can I say? I like books.

The next trip, which we'll be in the midst of by the time you read this, will be to Greece. The point, ostensibly, is to introduce Shuo-tai to all of my Greek relatives. For her, however, I think the real point it just to see a small piece of Europe. This is a girl who really loves to travel. I'm personally more of a homebody, but as long as I get a little time for swimming and reading, I won't complain too loudly. In any case, it should prove an adventure.

Revisions & Errata:
Dictionary of the Future
(better than I thought)

In A&E #358 I reviewed Faith Popcorn's and Adam Hanft's Dictionary of the Future, calling it somewhat of a coffee-table book and making the scurrilous claim that it wasn't terribly serious. Boy, was I ever wrong. This book is serious!

I took it along with me to Taiwan and started reading it the way it's supposed to be read, that is to say, from cover to cover, and I quickly realized that it would be time wasted unless I was also taking notes. So there I was like a college freshman studiously absorbing his textbook in active-reading mode, and I found myself somewhat stunned by the sheer amount of work the authors have done.

This book represents years of research, yet it has all been condensed and distilled into bite-sized morsels, meticulously

organized,

cross- referenced to a degree, and essentially made as easy to digest as possible. Nonetheless, there's so much here that it does take a little bit of determination to wade through it all, but it is worth the

effort. For a prospective science-fiction writer interested in the near future, I would go so far as to say this book is indispensable, provided you are willing to read it with a notepad in hand.

My thoughts on this are as follows. Most science-fiction seems to take the form of "tweaking" a few things (advancing technology as well as mucking around with the current political situation) and then examining what such a society might be like. That, however, now seems to me as sort of lazy. While it's certainly easier to examine a few changes as opposed to many, it has the effect of parsing society, whittling it down to the writer's chief areas of interest, so that in the end, whatever the story is about says much more about the writer than it does about the prospective future.

Although this book focuses predominately on western society, it discusses so many trends and predictions that it seems to me to have the effect of opening the mind to all sorts of possibilities that would otherwise never have been considered. And I think that going through this process is important, indeed, perhaps even essential, if one hopes to take a more comprehensive approach to one's contemplation of the near-term future.

The one misgiving I have, however, is that I really think my mind is too small to incorporate even half of what this book has to offer. While some of the predictions are good for little more than background dressing, others are potentially

far-reaching
in

their implications. How to really make sense of it all? Nonetheless, I think this book is important enough that there should be a copy in every futurist's library.

Countdown to a Meltdown

While I was in Taiwan, the holy grail suddenly fell into my lap. No, not the actual holy grail long sought by knights and kings. This holy grail turned out to be an article in the July/August 2005 issue of The Atlantic, an article by James Fallows entitled "Countdown to a Meltdown." In this article, Fallows describes the impending economic crisis as told by a political campaign

manager of the year 2016. It reminded me of myPrognostications article from A&E #356, but unlike the miserable author of that piece of trash, Fallows actually did his homework, and, in any case, he can write, which is always a plus.

Oh, how I wished I possessed the intelligence and skill to put together something like this. It's a masterpiece in twelve short pages. If you can locate a copy of the magazine, do give it a read. It says, essentially, what I wish I'd been able to say.

Collapse: A New Book
by Jared Diamond

I haven't even seen this book yet, so it's a tad bit premature to be doing a review, but I saw Diamond talk about it on Book-TV, so I just thought I'd mention what he said it was about. C-SPAN2 was doing a broadcast of a brief lecture he gave at the San Diego Natural History Museum, and judging from the many points he made, it looks like it'll be an interesting read assuming I can fit it into my copious spare time.1

Diamond, an active environmentalist who also wrote Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies,2 now turns his attention to why societies choose to fail or succeed, and he identifies various factors which lead them either to the promised land of ecological stability or to the well- traveled alternative, that being a fall into famine and, ultimately, cannibalism.

In the case of Easter Island, he ponders what might have been going through the mind of the native who found himself cutting down the island's last tree. At that time, certainly, this Easter Islander could not have imagined that the great majority of the island's population would soon disappear for lack of protein,3 and that in a few generations, the worst thing one of his kin could say to the other would be

1 Me being sarcastically optimistic.
2 This book apparently put a highly
geographic spin on the story of human
history.
3 No more trees to build fishing boats, you
see.
"Your mother's flesh sticks between my
teeth."

Likewise, Diamond posits that the Inca civilization probably fell due to deforestation and soil erosion, the Inca elite so removed from the commoners that their goal wasn't to save the society but was rather simply to stay on top of the crumbling carcass of what had once been one of the world's great ancient civilizations.

In both cases as well as many others, he blames an overexploitation of the environment as the root cause of most societal downfall, and insofar as societies prove able to make the right choices when confronted with the limitations of their environment, he pinpoints a high degree of social stratification (insulation of the decision makers

from
the

immediate consequences of their decisions) as well as social inflexibility (an over-reliance on tradition and dogma) as the key structural components resulting in poor decision-making

and
impending
societal collapse.

Needless to say, he's anxious about the future, but he's not without hope, remarking that at no time in history has man possessed such clear understanding of action and consequence, nor such knowledge of past failures and the reasons behind them. In any case, I think this is a book I'm going to have to read if I want to better understand history as well as our future prospects from an environmental point of view.

If nothing else, you might want to present a copy to your Republican friends on their next birthday. As for myself, I fear a nerd's lament is in order: "So many books; so little time."

IgTheme: Power Reduction
in RPG Campaigns
(Kill the Rules; Save the Story)

Having GMed AD&D more than any other RPG, I've many times confronted the problem of campaigns becoming overpowered, or to be more specific, too overpowered for the AD&D system to effectively govern. When dragons no longer pose a credible threat, you know the characters are past the point where monsters have meaning.

What then? Well, many GMs have suggested character retirement. Others have tried to find a way to kill the PCs. Some have perhaps even been so bold as to strip the PCs of their magic and hit

them with a graveyard full of level-
draining undead.

I think these are all worthy and well- tested solutions, however, some years ago another option was suggested to me. I happened to be in a car talking with the creator of The Primal Order,4 and what he suggested took me by surprise. He said that there's no reason to have the campaign come to an end just because the rules don't support the power level of the characters. Create new rules. Expand the campaign universe such that credible threats exist. In short, the story is what is important, and ruleset limitations should not be used as an excuse to kill a good story.

This is more or less the tactic I've taken with the Jinx campaign, and while I'm still fumbling around trying to keep up with Jinx's power level, I'd have to say that I think it's worth the effort. By keeping things going past the point where most others campaigns would have long since terminated, we rather feel like we're breaking new ground.

This, of course, is not to suggest that other PCs haven't done battle with devils and demons. Nonetheless, I don't know how many have actually gone to the trouble to detail the internal politics of the outer planes as well as create the necessary backstory to explain it all. It's a very large tapestry upon which to base a campaign, probably a bigger hunk of meat than most GMs will be willing to thoroughly chew.

There are, of course, campaign aids which help in this respect. Planescape comes to mind, as does several more recent RPG books about Hell or some deranged facsimile thereof. However, as a set, these books don't hang together at all. They're a web of contradictions, so unless a gamemaster is willing to use just one to the exclusion of the others, there's still a great deal of massaging to be done.

I suppose whether or not it's worth the trouble will come down to one's personal reasons for gaming. As for myself, however, I'll admit that it's more work than I'm used to as a GM, but the campaign certainly has it's moments, moments that I don't believe could be adequately replicated in a "normal" campaign.

In short, we'll just have to see how it goes, but so far, the story remains interesting.

4 See my article for A&E #300.
Comments on A&E #360:
Myles Corcoran: I liked your ideas on

the future, however, it now seems to me that the thing that many futurists are really dancing around is this notion of singularity. I mean, if smart-AIs are really in the cards, then it seems to me that, at least over the long term, human intellect will no longer be subject to the limitations of grey matter hardware. At some point, mind uploading will occur, and once this happens, then we're truly in a post-human future. What would that be like? Well, let's think about this for just a moment.

When my friends in college first started getting into MUDs,5 what many of them discovered were the joys of coding

virtual
environments.
I

personally never got into this, as I was never much of a mudder, but with human intellects immigrating into virtual space, I would imagine that much the same phenomenon would occur, eachperson/entity building their own home/realm, and each making it as simple or as complex as they desire. Space (volume, area) would not be a limitation, at least not within reasonable limits, so each individual might occupy as ornate or as impressive a domain as, say, a greater God in AD&D. I could imagine it getting somewhat ridiculous, people competing with one another not in terms of resources but rather in terms of pure imagination as well as the art of virtual imagery.

"Yes, notice how the singing water flows uphill, then back down, then back up, then through the mountain, and finally it swirls upward into the clouds, catching the rays of the twin suns, all the while vocalizing my symphony. It's a treat for the ears as well as the eyes, no?"

Of course, as you indicate, the basic RPG trope of "kill them and take their stuff" becomes rather obsolete to the point of appearing almost comical in retrospect. I mean, people born into such a world would likely have no concept of scarcity, and what that very fact would do to their personalities I can scarcely imagine. In any case, it creates an obvious dilemma over how to create sustainable conflict, and, at least at first glance, it seems to me that the only

5 Multi-User Dungeons on the campus
computer network.

conflict that would have any meaning to such people would be the sort of battles we might see on daytime soap operas which are typically waged over infatuation and pride.

Would that be fun to roleplay? I'm inclined to doubt it. After all, gamers derive much of their enjoyment from the effect they can have on the game world. What sort of effect can one have on a world where each person can create their own private world, where each person's domain is a work of art, and where everyone can seclude themselves in their own private paradise almost indefinitely?

It would be like roleplaying a bunch of gods, I suppose, each player literally the master of their own realm, but interacting merely for their own education or amusement. Speaking of education, I'm inclined to think that people growing up in such a society will be so spoiled, so inherently rotten, that it might serve the society to demand that each one of them experiences a number of "simulated lives" not only for the purpose of learning the history of their race back from before the time they went virtual, but also for the purpose of learning about themselves and learning about life, that thing which they emulate, but which they have long since shed. Likewise, putting such lives on public record could serve as a permanent chronicle of their individual character and may, in fact, play some factor in determining their status within the society, as well as the level of responsibility that they may be trusted to assume.

I'd love to read a book about such a society, but I have absolutely no idea how all this could be effectively translated into an RPG.

Michael Cule: re Roleplaying the

Future: The notion of playing a wandering Time Traveller or a long- term corpsicle who is revived by medical professionals at some distant date and is discovering the future has always appealed to me, although I've never participated in either sort of campaign. I don't suppose you or anyone else can suggest any fiction (particularly a good, first-person narrative) that does a good job of exploring either situation.

Lee Gold: re NPC Goals & Morals:

Loved your random tables. Perhaps we should have a random tables IgTheme with everyone submitting something to help GMs come up with cool stuff on the spur of the moment.

re Gene Loans by venture capitalists: That's an interesting idea. Dictionary of the Future talked about venture capitalist speculating in a young person's future as a scientist or artist, but gene loans takes it to a whole new level. Nicely done.

Of course, this idea of social manipulation going as far back as an individual's genetic traits is rather Huxleyian in it's implications. One wonders, however, what price parents wouldn't pay to give their children a "leg up" in life, and, in fact, if we ever find a "crime gene", it may be the case that society would demand doctor's screen for it. Likewise, I can easily see a straight father wanting to screen his progeny for homosexuality, just as a homosexual one, perhaps, may want to raise a gay child in the loving, understanding home he never had.

Speaking of which, the concept of single parent families may not be so far-fetched if artificial wombs come into being. Immediately, they would raise the possibility of women past the age of childbirth being able to contribute their pre-frozen eggs to the conception of their own natural children. But more far-reaching, they also create the possibility of the end of marriage as we know it, and a world where children may be ordered as if out of a Sears catalog, all their physical and innate psychological traits pre-selected, their "ability scores" maxed to the limits of biological and genetic manipulation.

Would this necessarily be a bad thing? I don't know. Imagine a world of "Alphas". Huxley predicted it would never work. Likewise, someone once said that it takes all kinds to make a functional society.

We have all kinds right now, yet we're still at each other's throats, at least geopolitically speaking. I wonder what a world of Alphas raised by a primary mother

or
father,
rather than
assembly-line
socialized

and programmed as in Brave New World, would be like. What would it entail? What

would
be
the

possible consequences of such a sweeping redefinition of the family unit?

There's another issue that occurs to
me as well, and here I really trot out

onto thin ice, because I don't have a whole lot of data to back myself up, but perhaps somebody more knowledgeable can comment. It occurs to me that with the explosion of women in the workforce and the subsequent sliding of the birth-giving age of women from the onset of female puberty to a woman's 20s and now 30s and in some cases even 40s, it seems to me that there's the possibility of creeping genetic error, which may slowly and rather quietly overtake a population before it realizes what's going on.

Now, granted, we all know that genetic diseases are more common for the children of older mothers. My mother was around forty when she had me, so I suppose I should count myself lucky that I've got all my fingers and toes. But what is less well known is that people such as myself who are born to women late in their reproductive life are at a higher risk for all sorts of diseases later on. It's quite a long and expanding list, I though I don't have it in front of me at the moment, I believe we're even at a higher risk for diseases like Alzheimer's and cancer, though I'm at a loss to understand precisely why, except to suppose that our genetic makeup must have something to do with it..

Well, my point here is that if these problems are genetically driven, then they are probably being passed from one generation to the next, yet it is happening over such long periods of time and is so pervasive that we don't notice it. This, of course, suggests that perhaps due to creeping genetic regression, maybe we're not as genetically error-free as even our more recent ancestors. And if that's true, then is it really wrong for society to use advances in science and technology to try to fix this problem?

I don't know the answer to that, of course, but I'm tempted to think that it's an interesting concept to explore within a near-future setting. Although, I'll not neglect to point out that as George Will accurately warned, this is a slippery slope. Where will we end up if we should slide down it?

re knowledge workers versus creativity workers: I'm not sure that this is a distinction that I would necessarily draw. I tend to view "creativity workers", as you call them, as a subset of knowledge workers, but I also tend to view all knowledge workers as exercising some degree of creativity in

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