How to blow up the Death Star and/or other doomsday weapons but mainly the Death Star

I don’t always sleep well but when I do suffer from stress induced insomnia it’s never at the initial falling asleep stage. One excellent talent I have is falling asleep. I’m very good at it but it’s not a skill much celebrated.

If I do wake up in the middle of the night (and some claim that’s a normal sleep pattern) the trick I’ve found for getting back to sleep is finding something that is both complex enough to be distracting from more stressful thoughts but so inconsequential as to not be stressful itself. Anyway, I woke up last night worried about multiple things that the long-suffering meat robot has to deal with when Monday comes around. So many things in fact that I spent the darkest hours plotting how to blow up the Death Star in some detail.

The canonical method for blowing up the Death Star was determined by two factors. The first was George Lucas wanting to fit in a sequence based on WW2 movies, in particular Dambusters and 633 Squadron. The second was to give Luke a specific heroic feat to conclude the story of the first film. I’m not going to gainsay those aesthetic choices.

However, as a piece of problem solving the whole strategy is less than perfect.

  1. Huge numbers of people are killed. Sure, it’s war and self-defence but the people killed are also people enslaved by an evil empire run by a mind controlling space wizard. Fewer deaths would be inherently good.
  2. A large proportion of the Rebellion’s pilots are killed in the attempt. There are deaths on both sides and while the bulk of the casualties are on the Imperial side, the proportional cost to the Rebellion is huge. We know they are short of pilots because they happily let Luke Skywalker fly an X-Wing.
  3. The plan can’t actually work. To be fair, the Rebellion doesn’t know this and they also have very little choice. In the end though, the plan ONLY works because Luke has hitherto untapped force powers and because he gets in-flight advice from a Jedi space-ghost.
  4. The plan is last ditch in terms of timing. The Death Star is destroyed just at the point at which it could destroy the Rebel base. Some margin of error in the timing would have been better as a plan (although less good dramatically).
  5. The Rebels have no idea what a safe distance for blowing up a Death Star is. For all they knew, the explosion could have destroyed them or at least what remains of their fleet. The Death Star has enough power to blow up a planet, turning it into a bomb is less than wise.

Point 3

I’d like to deal with point 3 first mainly because the plot manoeuvrers the Rebellion into the position where it apparently has no choice other than a last-ditch attack using small fighters. The issue is that they can’t actually land a bomb into the magic vent despite it’s resemblance to a womp-rat.

Is there a better option? Instead of firing a bomb into the vent, wouldn’t it be better to place the bomb manually? In terms of war films, think The Guns of Navarone instead of 633 Squadron. No time to infiltrate the Death Star, I hear you say? We’ll get back to that but for the moment we don’t need anybody to get into the Death Star as the vent is on the outside. Drop off some commandos into the trench and they can plant the bomb.

Too hard? Too much of a suicide mission? Well, it is even easier than that. Astromech droids are designed to crawl about on the surface of space vessels and interact with devices on the surface. Drop an R2 unit equipped with a bomb into the trench and let them beep-boop its way to the vent. The tie-fighters will try and blow it up but now they will be the ones trying to hit a small target in a trench while the x-wings attack them.

It would be a noble sacrifice by droid but the Rebellion doesn’t otherwise show much respect for the lives and autonomy of droids. This plan doesn’t address the huge number of casualties but arguably it would lead to marginally fewer x-wing pilot deaths.

Obi-Wan’s commandos

I couldn’t think of a better solution than R2-commandos without there being a bit more space in the plot. Infiltrating the Death Star with demolition experts is a safe plan all round but the story gives no time for that to happen. We do know that it is possible to infiltrate the Death Star as the crew of the Millennium Falcon manage it somewhat unwittingly, earlier in the film (to what extent Darth Vader lets them is another matter).

To fit a commando raid into the story would require Obi-Wan to access the plans to the Death Star in R2D2, make sense of them, understand the weakness and assemble a team to do the job. None of which happens or has time to happen.

However, assuming that Obi-Wan could do all that, then points 2, 3, 4 and 5 can be dealt with. Plant a bomb and blow up the Death Star from a safe distance.

There’s got to be a better way

I know I’m a bit R2 fixated, but the plucky little droid can do an awful lot. Noticeably, when he is aboard the Death Star he manages to gain control over the station’s computer systems. R2 has the whole place hacked. The simplest (but least dramatic) solution to the Death Star problem would be for R2 to introduce a virus or exploit some other IT vulnerability in the Death Star.

Ideally, once compromised, the Death Star could be set to self-destruct (all spacecraft have self-destruct sequences by the fundamental laws of space-opera). With sufficient notice, the Death Star could be safely evacuated thus minimising loss of life except for the weird monster that lives in the trash compactor.

Speaking of which…I don’t know if there is a way of getting that trash compactor monster to destroy the Death Star but it would be worth having a sub-committee look into it.

Using non-Star Wars technology

I guess a computer virus is not really in keeping with Star Wars, even though there is no way they couldn’t exist in that universe. What other SFF technology could dispose of a Death Star more safely?

  • Nanobots. Get some nanobots on that thing and let them feast on all that tasty, tasty technology. The whole thing gets nibbled to death.
  • Trap it in hyperspace somehow. We don’t see it use hyperspace in a New Hope but it must get around somehow. Trapping the Death Star in another dimension sounds plausible but as we don’t know how hyperspace is supposed to work, this isn’t much of a plan.
  • Use the force. When Alderaan is blown up, the loss of life is felt across the universe as disturbance in the force. Maybe, if they all concentrated really hard when the Death Star appeared, they could have rotated it just a bit so that it missed. With the Death Star rendered tactically useless by the sheer force of will of whole planetary populations not wanting to die, the Empire would be forced to retire the whole project.
  • Teleport the Death Star crew off the station. This requires the Rebellion to have Star Trek teleporters but the Empire not to have protection from Star Trek teleporters.
  • Go back in time and not let Palpatine become Emperor. A more elegant solution than a blaster.

Around about this point I drifted back to sleep.

How to talk about Russia?

I’ll confess at the start that this post doesn’t have an answer to the question in it’s title. Also the title could have been “How to talk about China?” or Israel or the USA. I’ve granted myself permission to talk about Britain and Australia in any damn way I like 🙂 but they aren’t examples of the problem at hand.

I’ll skip to Australia and China first of all, because for many people this will be a more neutral example. During the recent Australian Federal election, one of the nuttier right wing parties was Clive Palmer’s United Australia Party. Palmer is a Trump-like figure, an erratic businessman with political ambitions and like Trump, he is prone to wild speculation.

Part of his shtick was conspiracy theories about China. An airfield in Western Australia was supposed to be a secret bridgehead to a literal Chinese invasion. Anti-China sentiment and specifically anti-Chinese racism has a long history in Australia. In more recent times the xenophobic One Nation Party, these days more infamous for its anti-Mulsim stance, began as an anti-Asian immigration group. Without a doubt, Palmer was trying to manipulate deep seated anti-Asian prejudices in Australia to gain votes.

But. The current Chinese government is an authoritarian regime which really does seek to influence Australian politics. Australia’s Race Discrimination Commissioner, Tim Soutphommasane, described the issue in this way:

‘Let me make one thing clear. I am not in any way downplaying the seriousness of concerns that have been raised, both from inside and outside government, about foreign interference. They must be taken seriously. In our liberal democracy, there should – and there must – be debate about matters affecting the integrity of our democracy and the sovereignty of our nation-state. But there must be responsibility exercised in public debate. It is a dangerous thing to invite hysteria. It is doubly dangerous to invite anxiety about the Chinese party-state that may shift into animosity towards people with Chinese heritage. It is concerning to see sensationalism now creeping into mainstream commentary. Consider, for example, the references in Professor Hamilton’s book to “panda huggers”, to “dyeing Australia red”, to “China’s fifth column in Australia”, or to Australia being turned into a “tribute state” by a Chinese “silent invasion”.’

The issue is not just intended racism but the way a genuine story or issue can then feed into racist/xenophobic narratives. Take for example this story from New Zealand in 2017:

A China-born MP for New Zealand’s ruling party has denied being a spy after it emerged that he had spent years studying and teaching in universities with links to Chinese intelligence services.

“I am not a spy,” Yang Jian, the National party’s first MP born in mainland China, told reporters on Wednesday after a joint investigation by the Financial Times and New Zealand’s Newsroom revealed what they described as his hidden past.

I’ll take the guy’s word for it but whether the accusation is true or not, the story itself feeds into a classic racist trope that dual or foreign-born citizens or citizens of a given ethnicity or religion have divided loyalties. That idea has been used in many anglophone countries to attack Catholics in the past and is still used against Jews in public life.

In the US currently there is the issue of Russian attempts to influence the US election. I think the evidence that Russia was trying to get Trump elected is pretty strong, the evidence that Trump was actively cooperating with that effort is also strong but the evidence that it had a significant impact is less strong.

The discussion around Russian influence though, often plays on historical fears and rivalries between the USA and Russia/the USSR. Old racist tropes about Russia are all mixed up with genuine issues along with more hysterical conspiracy theories.

The core of these issues is there are different aspect of communication at play.

  1. Intent of the person communicating
  2. The factual content of what they are communicating
  3. The framing of the communication
  4. How that communication fits in aesthetically with entrenched prejudices

With somebody like Clive Palmer, it is easy to see how 1,2,3 & 4 are all informed by racism and the desire to manipulate racism. However, even if we do our utmost to expunge racism from 1, 2 & 3 when discussing world affairs, we personally have very little control over 4.

You can be very careful with your language and have the purest intent and frame what you are saying very carefully and still be switching on xenophobic lightbulbs on in people’s heads. The more deeply entrenched those racist tropes are within a culture, the harder it is not to play into the racism aspects of an issue. The anti-Asian racism within Australian culture (which is about as old as European culture in Australia) is an obvious example but so is anti-Semitism.

As I said at the start of this, I don’t have answer. People acting in bad faith will exploit silence just as much as they will exploit words to spread disharmony and hate. Nationalistic governments will often play into racism directed against their dominant ethnic group precisely to bolster their own support.

Over the years, I’ve tried to change how I talk about the USA, for example, from a broad brush anti-Americanism to less metonymic language that helps separate the actions of a government from a nation and a nation from a people and a people as a homogeneous group from the reality of a diverse collection of people. It’s easy to fall into language that helps bolster a nationalistic perspective which in turn enables the kind of deep cultural prejudices I’m discussing. It’s not enough though and the depth of the communication trap seems unresolvable.

Did fandom cause the collapse of civilisation or vice versa? Let’s Assume Neither :)

It’s been a long time since I linked to a post by the improbable 2016 Campbell Award Finalist and Inaugural Dragon Award Winner for Best Horror Novel That Was Actually A Space Opera, Brian Niemeier but a posy at his blog caught my eye [direct link, archive link].

Brian’s politics mixes standard alt-right nationalism and misogyny with a particularly reactionary form of Catholicism. People may recall Brian’s concern that literal demons are controlling the left ( ), so not exactly a Pope Francis or Vatican II fan.

Anyway, Brian has a hypothesis about religion and fandom:

“Kicking Christianity out of public life didn’t usher in a bright, sexy chrome utopia. Instead of directing their pious energies into scientific pursuits, America did what everyone does absent Christianity: They turned pagan.”

‘X-thing is a religion’ is a bit of a cliche but I don’t think that analysis is wholly wrong. Rather, I don’t think religion is really a single social phenomenon at all but a whole bunch of things — which is why cultures don’t follow one of Christianity/Islam/Judaism have quite different boundaries as to what is and isn’t religious and how religion plays a role in wider society*. So, sure, I can believe there’s some commonality between fandoms and religion.

Indeed, I’d go further and say that I think how we engage with fiction and products of the imagination has a close connection with spirituality and how religion has become a part of human culture. Brian is making a different argument though:

“Human beings are wired for worship. If social pressure discourages worshiping God, those with less fortitude will worship trees, rocks, or even plastic figurines.

Religious identity was the engine that built the West, and it’s still a major motivating force elsewhere in the world. What has happened in the American Empire is that Christian identity has shattered, and the pieces have been scattered throughout various hobbies.

Which was precisely what the main players in the Enlightenment wanted–to reduce religion to a hobby indulged in the home with no effect on public life.”

Fandom therefore being the eventual warped expression of people’s instinct towards religion suppressed by the machinations of Enlightenment philosophers. I think we can safely assume that this is not the case. However, the next paragraph is what really caught my eye:

“To see how people’s identities have gotten mixed up in their hobbies, take a quick glance at the ‘gate controversies popping up among various fandoms on a more or less daily basis. #GamerGate was the big one, but it failed due to infiltration by controlled opposition and exploitation by online grifters. It’s telling that every subsequent fandom revolt has enjoyed a brief honeymoon period before skipping straight to the “milked by grifters” stage. “If a man loses faith in God, he doesn’t believe nothing, he’ll believe anything,” is illustrative here.”

It can be hard to tell with the alt-right what is a bad-faith nonsense and what is sincere nonsense. Occasional you get paragraphs like this that are so lacking in self-awareness that they can only be a sincere expression of some very confused beliefs.

As a reminder: Brian was not a major figure in the high points of the Sad Puppy campaigns (a relevant example of one of the right wing uprisings in fandom) but leveraged those campaigns to get his books promoted by the Rabid Puppy slates into a Campbell nomination and a Dragon Award. Brian was also the charmer who tried to stir up a second Dragon Award nomination into another culture war battlefront in a bid to get more votes for his book. ( ) There may be better example of the ‘milked by grifters’ stage of the Sad Puppy Campaigns but only because it was never not a grift but Brian is a good example of late stage band wagon jumping.

“Few now can imagine–by design–a time when popular culture wasn’t partitioned into myriad fractured fandoms. Sure, people had different tastes, but there were cultural touchstones everybody shared, and more of them. Everybody tuned in to The Shadow. Everybody read Edgar Rice Burroughs. Everybody saw Gone with the Wind. But a people with a shared culture and a strong identity is hard to conquer, so universal popular culture had to go. Fandom was the murder weapon used to kill Western culture.”

Again a reminder: Brian writes anime-inspired right wing science fiction about people fighting in space-robot suits. He’s not exactly aiming for the mainstream. It’s that lack of awareness of his own micro-niche writing that makes me think he genuinely believes that’s what happened — that rather than technology and population growth making it economically easier for people to find stories that appealed to more finely delineated niches, that this was an actual plot to divide society.

Does he really think he would be happier if the only books or films available where the most mainstream ones? Also, if he believed that then shouldn’t he be doing his utmost to just consume the most modally consumed media? But it is like the person who wants religion to be mandatory who doesn’t get that it wouldn’t necessarily be their religion that would be enforced

He finishes his essay thus:

“Fortunately, there are creators laboring to forge new culture in the tradition of our ancestors. For a refreshing take on the mecha genre that clears away all the stale cliche cobwebs, check out my new martial thriller Combat Frame XSeed.”

Irony is dead, a knock-off Kindle Unlimited far right combat mecha killed it.

*[Not that Christianity, Islam or Judaism follow the same template either, but the similarities are what tend to shape what Western culture regards as the things a religion has: a god, a priest, a temple, a holy book, quasi-laws, exclusivity]

And today’s Puppy target is…amateur authors!

Bless Dave Freer of the Mad Genius Club, he’s taken off from a comment here and woven a delicate confection of post spun from the purest hot air.

“Just the profession of writing.That’s what the purpose of the site always has been. That’s what we’ve paid forward thousands of hours of our time to. It’s something which is personally very important to me. It’s a site I wish I could have found when I was starting into this profession. I love reading, particularly sf and fantasy, but reading in general. I want others to be able to enjoy it, and my unborn descendants to still enjoy it. Without professional writers… that will go the way of the music of the Lur. Once common, now Word says it is a spelling mistake.  There are of course still hobbyists who play a Lur. But that’s about it.”

[archive link]

Of course, by that standard the various diversions at Mad Genius into quixotic campaigns against awards, attempts to have people sacked from their jobs for not saying nice things about said quixotic campaigns, homophobic attacks on families and the general conspiracy theory mongering would all be distinctly off purpose. Perhaps Freer would rather have people believe each of those was about making money as a writer…

However, it’s the later part of Freer’s post that interests me more:

“If you can’t generate income from your writing, you’re a hobbyist. I wish you all the joy of your hobby, but unless you plan at least to try and try and generate an income, if you’re putting you novels on the market, I wish you in purgatory. We have enough dilettantes using writing for all sorts of other purposes which they care about, frankly damaging reading (because there is no selective pressure in needing to please readers to generate an income. It puts people off.) and certainly making life a lot harder for authors trying to make this a profession they can earn a living at.
Honestly, macramĂ© is great for all those other things you care about. And if you could play the Lur as a hobby, it would bring a great deal more awareness to whatever issue you cared about without screwing up our profession.”

[archive link]

Well, lots of working people can’t generate income from their writing because of the time constraints involved. They might want to and they might hope that they will in the future but they can’t. Further, writing for its own sake brings people joy. If you are one of those people, well I guess you can enjoy having the trad-pub author Dave Freer sneer at you as he wishes you to purgatory.

Those two paragraphs are one of the neatest encapsulation of a core aspect of what I call the conservative crisis. Couple a firm belief in capitalism (although not a well informed one) with a belief that all you need to do to make money in a capitalist society is work hard with the harsh reality that you are struggling to make ends meet and what do you get? If your ideology tells you that the poor are poor because they are lazy and that the homeless are homeless because they choose to be and that millionaires are self-made and the rich deserve their wealth because of hard work, then NOT being an amazing success (particularly in middle-age) is an existential challenge to your self-worth. The only answer that can hold these contradictions together is that somebody, somewhere has cheated you of the success that your ideology and your self-perception say you deserve. The ‘them’ who you believe have cheated you will be legion. For Dave its those terrible New York elites and liberals and SJWs and now, amateur authors flooding the market with books!

In reality, hard work helps but it is no guarantee of success, talent helps and is also no guarantee. There will be lazy, talentless people who succeed because of their background or in some cases just luck. Understanding that is actually important for your own mental well-being.

Dragons and wealth inequality

I’m sure this must have been discussed before but I’m too lazy to look on a cold morning.

Dragons of the Smaug-Tolkien variety must have some interesting economic impacts. Smaug hoards gold and jewels in vast quantities. Notably, Smaug (and presumably other gold obsessed dragons) know specifically what they have hoarded. When Bilbo steals one of Smaug’s treasures, the dragon notices that it is gone. So Smaug’s lair isn’t like Scrooge McDuck’s vault full of coins – the dragon is hoarding possessions rather than coinage or more abstract tokens of wealth. That’s not to say some of a dragon’s gold isn’t in the form of coins but clearly, the dragon wants the coins for their own sake and not as a unit of currency. Each piece of the dragon’s hoard is uninterchangeable. Furthermore, a dragon has nothing to spend his wealth on – there aren’t dragon shops and the dragon’s interaction with other species is one of eating them or burning them to a crisp.

So when a dragon hoards gold, the gold is removed from the economy. The dragon doesn’t spend any of it and hobbits-with-rings-of-power aside, none of its gold is removed. Assuming gold and silver are important units of exchange in fake-medieval fantasy worlds, this hoarding by dragons would have a deflationary impact. The dragon’s hoard is a reduction in the money supply and the value of gold increases as a result. An increase in the value of gold amounts to a reduction in the relative value of, say, beetroot. That is bad news for farmers who also have to contend with their livestock being eaten by the dragon.

According to this website, the total above-ground stocks of gold by the end of 2017 was 190,040,000 kilograms. The density of gold is 0.01932 kilograms per cubic centimetre which gives 9,836,438,923.395445134575569 cubic centimetres of gold. That sounds like a lot but it is just under 10 thousand cubic metres, which still sounds like a lot but 10 thousand cubic metres is basically a cube 21.5 metres along each dimension. About 300 shipping containers would carry the lot (assuming they can take the weight).

Here’s Tolkien’s picture of Smaug with his hoard:


Now, I don’t know how densely packed that pile of gold is. I assume there’s a lot of jewels in there and gold cups, vases or boxes that would take up some extra volume. Even so, that is a LOT of gold. Say…about 10 shipping containers full? Let’s say, all those goblets and jewels etc fluff up the pile to twice the size they would be if it was pure gold and call it 5 shipping containers of gold and presumably there’s even more gold we can’t see in the picture.

The point being, when I say a dragon’s hoard would have an economic impact, it would be a significant economic impact. Smaug’s hoard would be a significant chunk of the current world’s gold reserves.

When a dragon dies (courtesy of heroes equipped with a black arrow and advice from birds or from natural causes like a bad case of dragon-flu) the economy would be flooded with gold. Massive inflation would result as the price of gold plummets relative to the price of beetroots.

Now let’s say you are a monarch. If you are a feudal monarch then a decrease in the value of your gold due to a dead dragon would not be good but the price of the beets (turnips, mangel-wurzels etc) grown by your serfs would increase so maybe it would all balance out. If your kingdom is mainly independent farmers (as depicted in the Shire) then your wealth declines sharply as it is mainly gold and property. Property values are also decreasing as more land becomes safe to inhabit without a dragon flying by occasionally and burning everybody to death. So the monarch’s wealth declines relative to that of the free peasantry.

The Shire’s post-feudal class structure would have a similar dynamic. The wealthier hobbit families would have some of their wealth in the form of gold coinage. Poorer farmers would have few savings and their fortunes would be tied to each year’s crops. The flood of gold post a dragon’s death would make the value of crops increase as the value of gold decreased – reducing wealth inequality in the Shire (at least for a period of time).

Kill enough dragons and a dragon-slaying hero would seriously destabilise the economy but in the direction of reduced wealth inequality. Put another way, dragon-slaying would be a revolutionary act.

[ETA: On Twitter, Chris Neill pointed me to this article that covers much of the same ground by Frances Woolley ]

Loved Books: Sacred Mathematics – Japanese Temple Geometry

I don’t own books that you could call coffee table books (also I prefer coffee in cups rather than tables) but this one has the glossiest paper and a cover that looks like it has been gift wrapped.

This is a book about Sangaku ( – a topic about which I knew nothing. Reading about it briefly for the first time, I had one of those ‘how did I not already know about this!’ moments. I also, coincidentally, had money to spend on books! So I bought this as a present to myself.

The concept is/was that geometry problems or solutions to problems as a temple offering. How delightful is that! It’s symbolic but also requires personal effort, so it has many aspects of a kind of ritual sacrifice or penance (to cast in Western religious terms) but also very meaningful in other ways.

The idea of mathematics as belonging primarily with the sciences and materialist domains is a relatively new one. Sangaku is just one example of how mathematics often intersects with spiritual aspect of human inquiry as well as aesthetic ones.

Reading Peterson 11 – Notes & Facts & Hypothesis

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7, Part 8, Part 9, Part 10, Part 11, Part 12,…

There’s no shortage of notes in Jordan B Peterson’s book 12 Rules for Life but that doesn’t mean every assertion related to facts is referenced. Also, when references are used they aren’t always tightly associated with the argument. Take this for example from chapter 2:

“This is perhaps because the primary hierarchical structure of human society is masculine, as it is among most animals, including the chimpanzees who are our closest genetic and, arguably, behavioural match. It is because men are and throughout history have been the builders of towns and cities, the engineers, stonemasons, bricklayers, and lumberjacks, the operators of heavy machinery.” – Peterson, Jordan B.. 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (p. 40). Penguin Books Ltd. Kindle Edition.

Now there is a lot wrong with that statement factually but the right reference here, if this was an academic essay, would be to a source discussing historical patterns of employment. Peterson instead links to some modern labour statistics here The tables do use the term ‘traditional occupations’ and ‘non-traditional’ based on proportions of women involves but this is ‘traditional’ in a very loose sense and includes “Meeting, convention, and event planners”. My point here isn’t that the table is wrong of even questioning gendered-roles in employment – just that a lot of references are weak in this fashion. It is vaguely related but not neatly tied to Peterson’s argument.

(This is quite long – so more after the fold)

Continue reading “Reading Peterson 11 – Notes & Facts & Hypothesis”