Sunday, May 31, 2015

Arms & Armour Fechterspiel Sword

This is a well made and nicely proportioned training sword, eminently suitable for the purpose. The slim specialized blade broadening conspicuously at the ricasso combines flexibility with the weight and balance of a fighting sword. Like its surviving prototypes, it shows a 16th century esthetic. Early fechtschwerts or fechtschwert ancestors are discussed here. Here is a a detailed review of the Fechterspiel.

Chinstraps on Medieval Helmets

On some sallets the chinstraps have survived, and there are images showing chin straps or laces on kettle hats in the Morgan Bible and on helms in the Manesse Codex.

No chinstraps have survived on medieval bascinets, and for bascinets with mail aventails they would be invisible in contemporary images.

It is well to know that it is quite rare for chin straps to survive on medieval helmets of any kind. There must be thousands of surviving morions, but very few still have their chin straps, although they are well attested in contemporary iconography. And many barbutes and Italian sallets have rivets to attach chinstraps, but no straps.

However, in Christ before Caiphas in The Très Belles Heures of Jean de Berry we see a chinstrap on a small, round skulled bascinet worn without a mail aventail, as well as on a similar, somewhat more pointed helmet covered with scales.

Note how the straps widen to where they attach to the helmet. Surviving sallet straps often split to attach to the helmet at two points on each side, or attach to a shorter strap attached at two points on each side.

There is a reference in Froissart, Vol. III, chapter cxv. to a deed of arms between Sir Thomas Hapurgan, and Sir John des Barres.
It was then the usage (or at least, it seemed to me that it was) that one laced on their bascinet with a mere thong (une seule laniere), so that the point of the lance wouldn't set itself.
Froissart records a similar tactic was used by Sir Reginald de Roye against Sir John Holland in a combat before the duke of Lancaster, although in that case the helmets were heaumes.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Governance in the Elflands

Original world building is one of the virtues of The Goblin Emperor. The elvish government is one facet of this. A key example is the Corazhas, which might be described as an independent privy council with teeth. Evidently, the emperor needs support from at least half of them for important actions like building a major bridge or appointing his own chancellor.

As far as I can tell it is an original invention of the author, without any actual historical prototype, but it seems workable enough.

There are seven witnesses. The parliament, magicians, clergy and universities each appoint one. One comes from the treasury, one, The Witness for the Foreigners, from what seems to be the equivalent of the State Department or Foreign Office, and one from the judiciary. Apparently, the last four aren't simply appointed by the current emperor, but chosen by senior civil servants and judges that were, in the case of a new emperor, appointed by previous administrations.

Not a democracy, but an interesting set of checks and balances. One can see how it might have evolved from a more purely advisory council.

More on The Hot Equations

Another objection to Ken Burnside's The Hot Equations is that he spends a lot of time on the performance of electric propulsion (at current performance levels) and nuclear thermal rockets (tested experimentally, but not yet ready for operational missions.) While this technology will support a great deal of interesting exploration, I don't think it will support interplanetary commerce worth fighting a space war over. That will probably require something with higher performance, like a VASIMIR engine or a fusion pulse drive.

Pastiche and Fanfic

Pastiche has been described as a work that imitates the style or character of the work of one or more other artists. It follows, then that fanfic is a subset of pastiche, mostly distinguished by the author not expecting to get paid.

Professionally written pastiche at its best includes a lot of interesting work; I would argue that almost everything in the Arthurian Mythos after Chrétien de Troyes qualifies, as well as Shoggoths in Bloom, Slaves of Silver, Stross's Laundry novels and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead.

Scalzi's Redshirts starts out as a snarky Star Trek parody, but quickly goes metafiction as the titular redshirts figure out about the ridiculously high attrition rate among everyone on the away teams who isn't the Captain, Science Officer, Chief Engineer or Lieutenant Kerensky. They struggle to find a way to escape their fate before the narrative kills them.

Besides Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, I am reminded of Stranger Than Fiction.

Monday, May 25, 2015

About The Hot Equations

Ken Burnside makes a brave attempt to discuss the actual implications of thermodynamics in space warfare. It is on the 2015 Hugo ballot for Best Related Work. Unfortunately, he gets a lot wrong.
In space, the horizon assumption is almost always wrong. The one exception is Low Earth Orbit (LEO), where the limb of the earth can temporarily obscure something for roughly an eighth of an orbital period; this is about a 15-minute window, tops. Detection range is never limited by terrain for militarily significant increments of time. 
Not true for sufficiently distant observers. For an observer on Mars or Ceres, a ship in LEO is going to be eclipsed almost half an orbital period. In a hostile environment, this is exactly when the Earth ship would choose to make major delta-v changes.
With an emissions spectrum on your drive flare, plus distance and proper motion, they can determine the mass pushed by that drive flare. Making your spacebattleship look like a space rowboat doesn't work, and neither do decoys, which need the same drive signature, apparent motion, and mass as the ship they're duplicating. 
You can’t make a battleship look like a rowboat, but you can make a rowboat look like a battleship. A rocket engine is designed to convert as much of the energy used as possible into accelerating propellant. A mechanism designed to simply produce the same amount of heat and lighter will be lighter, simpler, cheaper and use less energy. Compare, for example a welding torch to a rocket engine with the same thermal output. Similarly, a craft with electric propulsion could route electricity directly to radiators to simulate the heat signature of a much more massive craft.
The usual counter-argument made is "I'll just drift in, with engines cold and go undetected." Your life support system and power plant will be a detectable signal once your engine turns off, and they'll know where to look. 
Again, a decoy can have a heat source to simulate a manned ship running without thrust. And unmanned ships can hibernate while not under thrust, with very low power output. We’ve already shown that unmanned craft can be lethal weapons platforms, even when operating in the unpredictable environment of an atmosphere with weather.
The ion thrusters used by NASA's probes to Pluto have ISPs of around 10,000 seconds with a thrust of around 4milligees. 
NASA’s one probe to Pluto, New Horizons, does not use ion thrusters. The author is evidently thinking of Deep Space 1 and Dawn, both asteroid missions.
The combat actions won't be naval in nature, at least in the conventional Battleof Jutland sense. They'll be closer to anti-piracy actions in the Sea of Cebu or the Gulf of Aden; a pirate will lay in wait at a point where a ship must make a course correction – and where missing that correction by a few hours can result in everyone aboard dying of starvation – and capture the ship to hold for ransom.  
This shows a profound misunderstanding of orbital mechanics. First, most cargo missions won’t need a crew and won’t have one. Second, capturing a ship at interplanetary speeds is much easier said than done.

Consider a specific scenario: the asteroid pirates in Poul Anderson’s 1966 The Moonrakers. Robot freighters travel on Hohmann Orbits between Mars and the Jovian Moons, and space pirates from the asteroids match courses and loot them as they pass through the asteroid belt. There are several problems with this concept.

Simply matching courses takes a lot of delta-v, even if the most efficient course is chosen, and the most efficient course is a very long haul for the pirate crew. Getting away with the loot requires still more delta-v, and another long haul for the pirate crew. For most goods, it’s probably cheaper to buy honestly in Mars orbit and ship to the belt on a robot freighter.

Second, if Burnside is correct that plausible space drives are visible at great distances, it will be quite difficult for the pirates to either achieve surprise or get away without being tracked and targeted. 

Third, reliably disabling enough of the freighter’s systems to make it safe to board without damaging the cargo will be tricky, even if the pirates can achieve surprise. And I can imagine a lot of ways a bloody-minded owner could booby trap a ship so that unauthorized boarding becomes too risky for any rational pirate.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Goblin Emperor

Just finished The Goblin Emperor. The 2015 Hugo novel category is going to be just fine. There’s at least one novel with likable and sympathetic characters, good plot, and good world building. The punctilious steampunk elves with gaslight and pocket watches are definitely not Tolkein, but language notes at the back would have totally warmed the cockles of Tolkein's heart, with  a detailed discussion of elvish forms of address explicitly noting gender, marital status and social rank.

You will probably find it helpful to read that part first.

The author succeeded in making me care about the protagonist and his allies and friends. Also, elvish airships are cool. And the Elvish government is an interesting and novel piece of word building.

Monday, May 04, 2015

The Quality of Puppies

I haven't read all of them yet, but in the short fiction Hugo categories dominated by puppies, most of the nominees don't seem to be worthy of a Hugo. Why?

I think there are two main reasons. The simplest is that, for the nominations exclusive to the Rabid Puppies, Vox Day is not a good judge of writing quality, in my opinion. He can't tell when he himself is writing badly, and he is inordinately fond of works published by his own tiny Castalia House, which publishes works that are passed over by larger publishers with better distribution and marketing.

The Sad Puppies are a bit different. I believe that the were honest in their desire to pick worthy writing, but they handicapped themselves in several ways.

The first was their stated goal to support works that wouldn't get on the ballot without their boost. That means that writers who have shown the ability to get nominated without puppy support were off the table, in theory. That's a lot of good writers.

In practice, the Sad Puppies made some exceptions for editors and dramatic presentations. Because I'm pretty sure that most of them would have been on the ballot without their help.  But putting Resnick and Weiskopf on the ballot was such a wonderful opportunity to stick it to the SJWs that it couldn't be passed up.

I have no idea why they picked Sheila Gilbert. She seems like a good person. But if you are picking a slate to show you are not sexist, you must include some females.

The second is that they ruled out writers tainted as Social Justice Warriors, as defined by them. This also narrows the field. I realize that they have tried to spin this as wanting authors who put good storytelling ahead of message, but this is quite subjective. The reader's tolerance for message increases when the message is congenial.  Indeed, if the author's view of the world matches the reader's, the message may be invisible to the reader.

I found their two John C. Wright nominations to have quite a lot of message, but I'm not a conservative Catholic.  For calibration, I think the Narnia books were a bit heavy on the message, but Gene Wolfe is fine.

The third is that the Sad slate was ultimately constructed by just four authors: Correlia, Torgersen and  two anonymous authors. Their ability to capture the best of the best was limited by how widely they read. Based on the slate, it seems that they were mostly fond of MilSF, Urban Fantasy and C. S. Lewis homages.  Which doesn't seem to adequately capture the full spectrum of the SF/F genre.

Also, I don't think their subjective view of the best SF/F writing of 2014 is quite the same as the median Hugo voter. I know it isn't mine.

Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly identified Tom Kratman as one of the group creating the Sap Puppy slate.

Consider Puppies

In his aptly titled blog post Rant: Sad Puppies vs. Anti-Puppies, as the Kilostreisands Pile Up, Jeff Duntemann argues

My conclusion is this: The opponents of Sad Puppies of Sad Puppies 3 put them on the map, and probably took them from a fluke to a viable long-term institution.

I’ve seen a few comments that go something like this: “I’d never heard of the Sad Puppies before. I’ve been trying to figure out which side is right, but the sheer nastiness of the Sad Puppies’ critics makes me think they’re just sore losers. I’m more or less with the Puppies now.”

I'm not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work, there, Jeff.  What put the Sad and Rabid Puppies on the map was their effective but unsporting gaming of the Hugo nominations that let them dominate the ballot. Before that they were getting very little attention outside the readership of their own blogs.

And someone new to the controversy would have to be pretty selectively tone deaf not to notice the sheer nastiness among the puppies themselves.