Rationalist vs Empiricist Cartographies

January 15, 2019 Leave a comment

Some years ago I got into a massive misunderstanding with a smart, logical cartography buff about the limits of rationalism in map-making. I was contrasting rationalism with empiricism and saying the former played an important role in the history of cartographic disasters. They thought I was in favour of irrationalism and labeled me a flat Earther. So it goes across the social media beach.

Where empiricists rely on direct observation for making their maps, measuring and recording coastlines, verifying distances by traveling multiple routes, etc., (philosophical) rationalists use their reason and imagination to decide that there must be e.g. a Counterweight Continent or some place for the world’s oceans to drain into or a meaningful set of Antipodes on the other side of the world from major cities, where you could maybe find their opposites or listen through the earth to spy on their business or otherwise act on them at a distance.

nolin-world-wall-map-o344-For all this and more, this Nolin world map from 1708s (still for sale in the 1790s, in various hand-coloured versions) is a treasure trove. It features a vague but confident Northwest Passage connecting Hudson’s Bay to the Pacific via Estotiland (an apocryphal version of Viking Vinland), Antipodes conveniently marked for the enterprising Telluric surfer, and a gigantic Terra Australis Incognita, encompassing Australia, New Zealand, Antarctica, and a lot of the Southern Ocean.

These were ideas that either made sense to French cartographers or were too appealing to let go of – in 1708 New France encompassed Hudson’s Bay and, theoretically, most of the northern part of North America. A direct route to China that circumvented Spanish waters was the kind of thing that had to be true, economically and by the divine right of Louis XIV. Between the Revolution and the sale of Louisiana, the Republic could dream again of a Sino-French naval alliance against the perfidious English and uppity Americans. Before that, visions of enlisting Prester John’s help against the Moors and Spaniards inspired King Manuel I of Portugal to send a series of navigators around the bottom end of Africa. It stood to reason that the empires of the ungodly Hispanomoors must be bounded by True Christian goodness.

Counter-Colonial Heistcrawl, of course, makes extensive use of both rationalist and empiricist cartographies. It is currently undecided about adopting a Copenhagen interpretation to geography: the sea is wide and definitive means of location are lacking. Maybe that phantom island is misidentified, maybe it’s still out there, somewhere, and you’re just looking in the wrong place. The Isle of Pines, a celebrated free-love paradise first written about in 1667, was finally located (not without violence – cartographic, anthropological, anti-socialist, and bloody) in New Caledonia. Maybe that fabled fairyland of Calyferne (California) will yet conform to its poetic image and turn out to be an island.

(I can’t tell what this is from here, I don’t seem to have brought the right sort of telescope)

The implicit game in original Traveller’s ship loan rules

December 11, 2018 12 comments

Back in 2018 when Google+ made it easy to have unending-yet-still-highly-focused chats about specific topics in gaming, I threw a hook out about LBB Traveller careers, which wound up in a general discussion of capitalism, Han Solo’s loan terms, and just what you’re supposed to do with a Free Trader anyway. Archaeologically, the most interesting presentation of this discussion would be in its original stratigraphy… but we’re all about the museum artifact here, so here it is polished up, co-authored by myself, Scott Martin, John Till, Viktor Haag and Maxime Golubchik. Guest appearances by Joshua Kubli and Isaac Kuo.

There is a certain authorial tone in the LBBs that I’ve never quite been able to pin down. Personally when I first got Traveller I found it very alien indeed – it assumed a load of cultural orientation that I didn’t have (in the US military, in 60s American SF, in technical manuals and US engineering education) and it was my first brush with an RPG, which neglected to say anything about what an RPG was. So although I understood it was supposed to be generic, I really had a hard time grokking the stakes – what you were supposed to do when playing it. Your motivations, your scope, what it made sense to build, run, destroy.

D&D was easier. Moldvay said you go into dungeons and get loot and in the Basic book that was it. Aside from the equipment list, the only thing to spend loot on was xp. You leveled up and could fight bigger monsters. A nice, closed loop.

But Traveller had no dungeon, it had the small chance of getting a ship… and then what? I started reading Heinlein and Clarke to answer that question (they didn’t answer it. Harry Harrison did better). Nowadays we know “you can do anything” but
(a) the LBBs didn’t really explain that and
(b) still, what are your goals?
At the time, Star Wars and Elite stepped in to fill the gap and it sort of worked about as well as Tolkien did for DnD’s kitchen sink US pulp fantasy… in both cases, I knew I didn’t have the intended answer.

Years later I’m still trying to figure out what might propel a Traveller game if you didn’t use it as a simple ruleset armature for your own otherwise fully-formed campaign with its own society and motivations. Also I’m writing 17th century Traveller right now and I think I should answer these questions more clearly than Marc Miller did.


1: just to cover all the bases, what if, like nearly everyone, you don’t get a ship as a mustering-out benefit?

Well, you can extend the famously lethal chargen experience and maybe die on your first Low Passage jaunt, or you can use your one precious High Passage to try to make powerful friends during the long night of hyperspace, or you can try to cosy up to some high rolling High Passengers as a Steward. Any of these can wind up generating an adventure, even the Low Passage option, as the party’s gunner is mistakenly ejected while frozen somewhere between the starport and the asteroid-mining colonies or the whole party wakes up, Arthurian Sleepers style, a thousand years later and it turns out you’re playing Vancian fantasy after all.

Under these circumstances you’re either going to stay in the starting star system for a good long campaign or execute one heist and hope your mustering-out ticket is just good enough to get you to a place that has easy money and poor record-keeping. If you’re smart, you’ll stay put, build an empire, and hire down-at-heel, recently-demobbed space cowboys to do the stupid vacc suit antics for you.

Footnote: there’s 1 steward for every 8 High Passengers vs. 1 medic for every 120 persons. Stewards need no formal training, in theory they earn 3000/month vs the Medic’s 2000, and you can work your way up to Chief Steward if you do learn some skills, for a 10% pay bump. Are the medics mass-produced replicants, or the stewards all runway models/entertainers/courtesans? Probably not: tending to High passengers (and I use the term advisedly) is like herding cats – painful and unrewarding. And you inevitably get let go after your 3rd voyage so you never make it onto the regular payroll. It turns out 99% of all stewards are un-unionized, unpaid refugees, just trying to get to the next star system without being recognized. Which is why they all wear eyepatches and comedy prostheses. Of these, 40% are running from the Pinkertons following their first, botched heist, three star systems ago. The millions they stole are nothing compared with the bill the pursuing detectives are racking up, which will be charged to their account on capture.

2. You’ve got a scout service surplus Type S Scout/Courier, the transit van of spaceships.
** following Faoladh’s comment I went back to CT book 2 and checked my facts and it turns out I did the Type S a serious disservice here. This is now edited to reflect the ship’s significantly better performance than I remembered.

This ship makes sense for the scout service, where it can work as an adjunct to a cruiser big enough to carry the necessary maintenance crew. For a crew of independent operatives it’s harder to imagine in law-abiding roles, with a tiny 3 ton cargo hold and 4 staterooms, allowing maybe 3 middle passengers (24000 CR) if they’re willing to put up with the rules-mandated smell and the fact that the pilot also does the cooking and cleaning. A couple of enterprising retirees can turn it into a pony express postal carrier by filling the cargo hold and one stateroom with mail. They may even make money on the 25000 CR/month mail contract because they don’t have loan installments to pay. The Type S really shines, though, as a nail-bitingly slow getaway vehicle: the ship and its auxiliary air-raft can take off simultaneously, fly in different directions, and meet in orbit. 2G is fast for a private commercial spaceship but achingly bovine compared with all the ships’ boats and pinnaces and fighters that don’t have to carry jump drives around. Which brings me back to diamond heists and other kinds of high-value, low-bulk smuggling (where “diamonds” actually means whatever thing is hard to replicate and valuable in small quantities in an interstellar empire with easy gas giant and asteroid mining. Probably information and exotic life-forms). Most intriguingly, it turns out hardly anyone ever really retires from the Scouts – they can go on Detached Duty, where they might be called upon by the old service to do a little favour here or there, keep an eye out for trouble on the frontier, pass the odd package through blockades, that sort of thing. And maybe get paid in official amnesia for that one time they were spotted slipping “mail” to the criminal cartels.

scout_courier viper_photo
Type S Scout/Courier vs. Elite’s starport police Viper

Maybe this is the early 80s talking, but for our group there was only one prototype for this sort of roving mercenary adventuring band.image-thumbnail-full
Now there are probably really smart things you can do just by being mobile. An expert strategist, consulting detective, interior designer, repo team or psychic bioweapon ninja wouldn’t need anything more to ply their trade. The ship’s anonymity (artificially boosted by millions of mustered out “scouts” ie. intelligence agents) is its greatest asset. But there is an irresistible suggestion in the fact that its cargo bay is just big enough to hold an air-raft or ATV.

You can carry a transit van in your transit van.

3. The Han Solo game: a 40-year loan on a Beowulf class Free Trader.
Free-Trader-T5-Core-Rules-Pg-358_25-July-2018a cobra mk3
Is the Cobra Mk.3 really a fair equivalent to the Traveller Free Trader? I think it’s significantly better at fighting and maneuvering, but it’s hard to translate between the videogame and tabletop experiences. The Millenium Falcon, being an extreme hot-rod, is just obviously part of a different design idiom.

Scott Martin reminded me that the entry level offer for a high-performing merchant captain is a shipyard loan on a new-built Free Trader: capital cost 36-37 MegaCr at 6.2% interest, working out to a monthly payment of 150,000 Cr – roughly equivalent to room and board for 500 average Imperial citizens or 6 mail contracts to different systems, meaning you’d need a 6-week month to break even as a mail carrier. Used (ie partly paid off) Free Traders are in high demand and short supply, going only to the luckiest/best-connected captains. The malfunctions table and the prevalence of piracy suggest that few ships make it to their 40th year, which further suggests that there’s something going on with the economics of the whole thing.

In the afterword to book 3, Miller tells us: “The typical methods used in life… (thrift, dedication, and hard work) do not work in Traveller; instead, travellers must boldly plan and execute daring schemes for the acquisition of wealth and power.” Looking at the terms on a Free Trader, that seems pretty evident for anyone saddled with such a miraculous gift. Here at last we have a plot-generating engine: how are you going to raise 150,000 a month?

Firefly, Traveller’s grandchild, has to convince its audience that it makes sense for Mal to tramp-trade his Free Trader around the backward Rimworlds. Its answer is to make Mal a social outcast, welcome nowhere – a defeated Confederate captain forced eternally to Go, Move, Shift along with his motley crew of conspicuous misfits, who all generate plots with their back-stories. It’s a classic stress loop, like MAR Barker’s Tekumel opener, “you are all barbarians fresh off the boat.” Not only does that excuse you from knowing anything about Tekumel, it also gives you immediate goals – get food, shelter – and a strong incentive to take any job that comes along. Mal must solve this week’s problem or die trying. Traveller does the same thing with raw economics… suggesting that it’s not so easy to escape the long arm of the Merchants’ Guild.

For the PCs, this works by driving them to take risks – probably smuggling to start with, in the longer term, probably finding profits that nobody else has noticed. For the shipyards… how can it possibly make sense? If lots of traders fail (and we can safely assume they do, given the profit margins they need to keep payments going), what happens to their ships? How are new-built ships the main option? Do they just get rolled over as “new” when in fact they’re reconditioned – so that the only certified-pre-owned ships are the ones with a clean set of papers and a famously successful previous owner? Are you liable to find fingers in the cargo hold door jamb, from that time the repo agency came to “follow up on the loan”? Is there something in the “mail” that activates when you miss a payment and flies you right back to the bank? Or are they still flying but on out-of-the-way tramp runs, where authorities are willing to overlook their lack of proper transponder records? It’s worth noting that according to the rules 1 in 36 of all commercial craft has skipped out on its loan, so that repo-men may show up on any commercial voyage. Yes, even liners.

Viktor suspects that the multi-ton computer systems on board are so heavy and seem primitive because they’re mostly doing stuff for the guild or the shipyard – constantly monitoring and auditing what’s happening on the vessel, the audit log being regularly dumped every time the ship reaches a starport for the benefit of analysis by the ship’s underwriters, mortgage holders, insurance providers, guild overseers, etc.

I suspect the answer is venture capital. Free traders do cost a lot to build and hardly ever survive more than a few years. They’re effectively mercantile scouts, drumming up new business, supplying backwaters, finding new products that are too risky for the regular steamer lines. They’re an acceptable fiscal risk for the big boys because just occasionally they discover a new route for a Fat Trader, and those routes get monopolized in-guild – the obvious thing to do, in fact, is to give the captaincy on the route to the person who’s developed it – creating a second-stage domain game for Merchant characters. The new Fat Trader captain might even get a financial interest in the bigger vessel, while being able to pass on their Free Trader to… a family member, trusted associate, or new aspiring captain from the guild.

So being a free trader captain is a bit like starting a punk band used to be: you’ll probably fail but there’s a lottery-like chance that you’ll invent a new line of business, which the guild will try to grab off you as soon as it learns about it. If you can survive its contract terms and IP lawyers and just maybe a couple of friendly assassination attempts, you get a full partnership, maybe a supervisor role over a stable of new Free Trader captains, and a foot on the admin ladder.
Screen Shot 2018-12-11 at 2.51.51 PM.png fat trader
Free Trader vs. Fat Trader

How can this work with a paltry Jump-1 ship? Because the frontier is not “around the edge” of the empire but “in between” those systems that looked richest at first blush during the early years of colonization – all those less obviously promising worlds that got officially passed over because they lacked exotic fuels and super-strong materials but which were occupied by squatters and prospectors, who are liable to start up New Vegas anywhere the Imperial Bureau of Investigation doesn’t monitor too closely.

And how do you keep making those monthly performance assessments, while you’re hunting for the big breaks? Well there is one commodity that’s theoretically tightly controlled, expensive everywhere (200,000Cr a dose in my 1981 book!), and in especially high demand with you and all your merchant guild buddies –  anti-agathics. Because you’ll all be 80+ years old by the time you escape your first contracts, if you’re lucky. Following this logic, the Company directors are probably all over 300 but don’t look a day over whenever it was they started making the system work for them.

How do the shipyards support their wild speculation in flooding the galaxy with free traders?
Drug trafficking.
Just like in the 70s and 80s.
Go watch Narcos. Seriously, it’s the best thing on TV this decade. Get over the subtitles. And Traveller/Narcos is a match made in heaven The Colombian Reach.

Oh yeah, and remember that Detached Duty for Scouts? You know who the anonymous, autonomous Type S is made for? CIA Bill, the guy who always shows up just when the real trouble starts.

Elite, then and nowlite ship scales

…did you think we were done? Not quite.
Reviewing the ship design rules, it occurs to me that there is one horrible hack you can do to the Type S scout/courier – the sort of thing Narcos’ Bill Stechner would do.
The scout/courier carries 4 staterooms (4 tons each), a 4-ton air-raft, and has a 3 ton cargo hold. Structural modifications are frowned on, if you’re on the sort of Detached Duty the rulebook talks about, but maybe they’re implied by what Detached Duty carefully doesn’t say. Strip out 2 staterooms and ditch the air-raft in favour of a parachute-and-motorbike. There are now 15 spare tons (and loads of space, since a Traveller shipping ton assumes hydrogen at 14 cubic meters each). A 6G fighter is 10 tons, including 1 ton of cargo space, and carries 2 people. If you have a plan to kidnap a planetary leader or heist anti-agathics (which are apparently worth over 100,000CR a gram), then a gutted Type S, a fighter, and a docking module just might be the unbeatable blockade-running combo. You’re restricted to a 4-man team (3 if you’re kidnapping) unless you bring a second ship.
Also not mentioned here but kind of obvious: the more droids on your team, the less you have to spend on life support. Does a droid need a stateroom? How many can you strap to the exterior and still make hyperjump?

we apologize for the explosion of posts

December 11, 2018 Leave a comment

just trying out an exporter from google+ and hey look 600 blog posts.

They’re being edited down. Remain calm, keep you limbs inside the vehicle.

“First, eliminate the impossible.”

December 5, 2018 Leave a comment

“First, eliminate the impossible.”
Sherlock Holmes, addressing the Miskatonic University graduating class.

“Then report immediately to the decontamination unit on level one. Under no circumstances should you approach the library, even… especially if you feel you suddenly understand something in the restricted section.”

I have a shameful impulse to run League of Extraordinary Gentlemen Cthulhu by Gaslight. I imagine it will pass.

A fascinating little biography of the creator of the Theremin

November 27, 2018 Leave a comment

A fascinating little biography via Adam Black.

After his successful tour of Russia, in the late 1920s Lenin sent Theremin to Western Europe, where the legend of his mysterious instrument quickly grew. “Theremin gathered huge crowds, because it was such a fascinating thing to see this man stand in front of what looked like a little wood writing desk with two metal antennas, and with nothing but his hands in mid-air, produce these melodies, sounding like a soprano singing,” Glinsky explains. “It was considered magic at the time.”

What audiences didn’t know was that Theremin was already working as a spy for the Soviet regime. While he wowed crowds with his ghostly tunes, played on what was then called the Thereminvox, or “Theremin’s voice,” he kept his eye out for any information that might be useful to report back to his homeland. “This was the great ruse, because everybody was so focused on this magician pulling music out of thin air that he was able to gain access to industrial places and patent offices and all sorts of things,” explains Glinsky.

While living in America, the gap between Theremin’s two lives grew more dramatic. While he cavorted in New York with the likes of Albert Einstein, taught the theremin virtuoso Clara Rockmore and entered into a controversial marriage with the African-American prima ballerina Lavinia Williams, his espionage mission continued.

Though the theremin’s influence continued to grow in the US, it had no effect on the life of its creator, who after his return to the USSR was caught up in Stalin’s purges and sent to a Siberian gulag. Theremin was lucky – unlike the millions who died in these labour camps, he was released after three months, as the Soviet war effort ramped up and the government realized they might actually need some of the scientists they’d banished. So officials rounded up Theremin and others and sent them to a sharashka, a prison where scientists from a variety of fields were forced to invent and research for the Soviet regime.

It was there that Theremin invented the other device for which he’s remembered. The Great Seal Bug, alternately known as “The Thing,” was an ingenious invention, a passive bug placed inside a wood carving of the Great Seal of the United States and presented to Averell Harriman, the American ambassador to Moscow, by the Soviet equivalent of Boy Scouts. Harriman happily hung the spy device on his wall. The bug was undetectable to the sweepers that were used to find such devices at the time, as it used no electricity. Spies a few houses down from the embassy would point a microwave beam in the direction of the seal, activating a small antenna that picked up noises in a resonant cavity carved out of the seal’s bald eagle’s beak. When turned on, the bug broadcast noises in Harriman’s office for anyone with a radio receiver to hear. The bug remained, unexposed, for seven years, before conversations were picked up accidentally by a British radio operator nearby, who alerted authorities and prompted an investigation.


A “hotspot” is melting the base of the Antarctic Ice Sheet at the South Pole. The area affected is three times that of Greater London. Scientists suspect a combination of unusually radioactive rocks and geothermal springs may be responsible.

November 20, 2018 Leave a comment

A “hotspot” is melting the base of the Antarctic Ice Sheet at the South Pole. The area affected is three times that of Greater London. Scientists suspect a combination of unusually radioactive rocks and geothermal springs may be responsible.

The warm bedrock is removing some 6mm a year from the underside of the 3km-thick ice sheet, producing a mass of meltwater that then flows away through sub-glacial rivers and lakes towards the continent’s coastline. The roughly 100km-by-50km hotspot came to light when researchers examined radar images of the ice sheet at 88 degrees South. This revealed a startling sagging in the ice layers directly above the hotspot.

_Antarctica is in no danger of melting away as a result of this hotspot.
In the grand scheme of things, the area affected and the amount of melting is simply too small to have a significant impact. But the knowledge adds to our understanding of the under-ice hydrology of the continent. There is vast network of sub-glacial rivers and lakes in Antarctica and they influence the way the ice sheet moves above them._


one for Paolo Greco: #itsMageblade!time

October 11, 2018 Leave a comment