This month’s Scientific American has an interesting article about the colonialist routes of the modern conservation movement, focusing on the role of John Muir in the foundation of Yosemite National Park. John Muir was the charismatic founder of the Sierra Club, a big organization in the conservation movement internationally and especially in the USA. John Muir was also an enthusiastic genocider:

his position was that of champion for a mean, brutal policy. It was in regard to Indian extermination[1]

Muir thought of the native Americans of Yosemite as “hideous” and “strange creatures,” and had no respect for them. He wrote that

they seemed to have no right place in the landscape, and I was glad to see them fading out of sight down the pass.

Which is an interesting example of how counter-productive such racism can be. The article presents compelling evidence that those people who had “no right place in the landscape” had actually carefully shaped the entire conservation area through generations of traditional slash-and-burn farming practices, which Muir ignored or actively reviled, with the consequence that the park lost much of its original beauty and character within Muir’s lifetime.

It is of course no surprise that an enthusiastic proponent of genocide should refuse to listen to or respect the ideas of those whose land he stole, and a bitter dreg of schadenfreude that his ignorance and racism led to the corruption of his dream stolen property. That will no doubt have been of little consolation to the men, women and children murdered in pursuit of his conservationist dream.

I wonder if the desire for pristine wilderness amongst those early conservationists was driven at least partly by a desire to reach an itch in the conscience that couldn’t be scratched. No humans on the land means being able to look away from what you’ve done, and to maintain a pretense of terra nullius, that the land was never occupied anyway, that those people who “have no right place in the landscape” were just drifting through anyway – only white men can touch the land in a way that leaves indelible marks, and to the romanticist those marks can only be the cruel marks of industry. So the only solution to protect the land from the evil touch of men is to set it aside – and carefully look away from the fact that the land was being nurtured by red men before you came and took it.

From this guilty itch and wilful blindness was formed the impulse to set aside land for conservation – the essence of the modern conservation movement. There is no doubt that this movement has done a lot of good for the environment, but it’s worth remembering the bloody crucible in which that impulse was born, and wondering how different the modern conservation movement would be if Muir had listened to those people he wand to see “fading out of sight,” instead of hastening their journey down the pass …

fn1: these are the words of his future wife’s friend. They should serve as a reminder that at the time of genocide in America and Australia, opinion was not settled on the rightness of the matter, and those who commissioned the deed were well aware that there was debate as to whether it was right.

If you go down to Gotanda today ...

If you go down to Gotanda today …

On Sunday I played a quick(ish) game of Malifaux with two of my regular role-playing crew. This was my first ever game of Malifaux, and I was quite impressed – it’s a smooth and enjoyable small squad battle game, with a cute mechanic and powers that are easy to learn, as well as very pretty design and a rich atmosphere. This is a brief report of the battle, which ended in a brutal all-party conflagration in the middle of the field.

Don't go to the nursery, dreamer, you won't like what you see ...

Don’t go to the nursery, dreamer, you won’t like what you see …

I played the Neverborn, and my foes were the Resurrectionists and the Guild (I think). We played on an 8×8 battlemat, with two strategies each. My team were:

  • Zoraida, a leader with a heavy magical bent
  • Teddy, a big furry bastard with teeth
  • Baby Kade, a small and unpleasant child with nasty knives
  • Candy, a blank-eyed Goth Lolita with a bag of poisoned sweets
  • Terror Tot, your classic vengeful infant
  • Sorrow, some kind of spirit creature with a mean turn in misery and pain
  • Voodoo Doll, Zoraida’s totem and a big mistake

The Guild player, Big R, went for a small squad of Death Marshalls, the Scales of Justice and some random guy with a big hammer (?) who died. The Resurrectionist player, Aloha-san, went for an absolutely brutally murderous leader called Seamus, some gravedigger dude, a Flesh Construct that is famous for taking huge damage, and a woman who could bury herself. Which didn’t work. There was also a zombie punk samurai thing. My foes went for strategies based on putting markers down on territory, one of which was Squatter’s Rights, which led to a protracted battle between undead and guild members in the middle of the board.

Because Candy and Baby Kade both have “Manipulation,” which makes it a challenge for opponents to attack them, I went for two secretive strategies:

  • Deliver a message: Candy has to rock up right next to an enemy leader and use all her actions for the round delivering it a message. Standing in front of an enemy leader doing nothing is … a challenging proposition. But if you have a challenging proposition, why not put it to a blank-eyed Lolita with a bag of poisoned sweets?
  • Bodyguard: Baby Kade had to stay alive as long as possible; at turn 4 (with two turns to go) I had to reveal that he was the bodyguard; I got bonus victory points if he was still alive with more than half hits at the end of the game. Baby Kade is fiendish difficult to hit, but he is just a baby …
Ted shambles toward Bethlehem

Ted shambles toward Bethlehem

When the battle started I split my forces, sending Zoraida, Candy and the Sorrow one way towards the Guild’s forces, and Teddy, Baby Kade and Terror Tot the other to take on the Resurrectionists. What’s not to like about a giant, blood-stained teddy bear with massive teeth and two psychotic babies crawling into battle? I soon discovered the power of this gang together – Terror Tot and Baby Kade both have pounce, which means that they get an automatic attack on anyone who moves into their engagement range, and once Teddy gets his hands on you you aren’t leaving the engagement. This little squad of creepy doom caught the Flesh Construct just after he had placed a marker down on a victory point. The Flesh Construct lasted into the 2nd Turn, and my little team came out of that encounter unscathed. Oh Teddy …

Meanwhile I discovered the power of the Voodoo Doll in a tight group. Selecting it to start with was a mistake, because it moved so slowly that Zoraida’s first action was to summon a new one with a spell, causing the old one to die. I could have used those 4 soulstone points on magic of some kind! The newly-summoned Voodoo Doll also got to put a “Sewn Fate” on a Death Marshall, which makes it vulnerable to all other attacks and means it takes damage if it injures the Doll. Zoraida started throwing magic at it to make it shoot its own men (she has a pretty turn in domination magic!) and the presence of the Sorrow meant that the Death Marshall kept taking damage from failed willpower duels. In desperation Big R had this unfortunate Marshall shoot the Voodoo Doll down, killing itself at the same time, and Zoraida just immediately summoned another one, which put a sewn fate on the next closest Marshall. This Marshall did so badly from the presence of the Sorrow that it was reduced to 1 wound simply through badly-timed activations and failed willpower duels, before it had even been attacked. But before it died it did manage to kill a member of its own team (Scales of Justice) at Zoraida’s bidding.

This was all a sideshow to the main action, though, which was the battle on the raised central area. Aloha-san and Big R had both selected a strategy which required taking and maintaining control of squares in the centre of the board, and they were beating the living (and un-living) crap out of each other for possession of those marks. The Resurrectionists were summoning zombies from the dead, and Seamus was blasting hell out of anyone who he could see, but Lady Justice (the Guild leader) was doing an awesome job of mincing his crew. This gave me plenty of time to pull my crew into the battle unharmed, and I entered the centre of the table with no injuries and a full crew. At this point I had to reveal Kade’s bodyguard status, and Seamus immediately went to town on him with his pistols – but Baby Kade was on his own now because in order to win I had to get Candy right up to the base of the nearest leader (Lady Justice) within 2 Turns (the game ended at Turn 6). She could get within 4″ in Turn 5, but in order to deliver her message in Turn 6 she couldn’t move (it uses a full action). Fortunately, I could get Teddy to within striking range of Lady Justice. Once he hit her, he could push her 4″ and get into base-to-base contact with her, activating his “gobble you whole” power.

Turn 6 started with Candy in base-to-base contact with Lady Justice, Terror Tot in pounce range, and Teddy ready to munch, but with one other Guild crewmember within missile-fire range. Seamus, the only remaining Resurrectionist, was letting rip with everything he had on Baby Kade – an unfortunately terminal situation for Baby Kade. Initiative was drawn – and Big R won! Lady Justice could act first, and dismember Candy before she could deliver her message! Except … that in the previous round one of my crew (Zoraida?) had cast a spell that induced “Mood Swing” on the other Guild crewmember, allowing me to choose to activate that crewmember in place of any other Guild crew at a time of my choosing. I chose now, so Lady Justice didn’t get to tear Candy apart, the activated crew member failed to kill her, and she delivered her message:

You are going to die

After which all my crew whaled on her, finishing, appropriately, with Teddy delivering the killing blow and swallowing her whole. The other Guild crewmember died during this Turn too, as did Baby Kade, which left me with all but one of my original crew, the Resurrectionists with just their leader, and the Guild completely killed, their leader eaten in one bite by Teddy.

But when we added up the points from our strategies we were all on equal victory points.

I think that’s the definition of a Pyrrhic draw, at least for the Guild. But at least Teddy didn’t go home hungry…

Malifauxcent thoughts

This game was excellent, and the battles and magic so much fun that it was hard to remain focused on strategies – we all just wanted to have at each other and see what happened. The basic mechanic involves drawing a card that resembles a standard playing card (but with very pretty gothy designs), using the number plus an attribute to determine success. The symbols on the cards can act as triggers for additional effects. Every round you also have a hand of 6 cards you can use to “cheat fate,” basically swapping your drawn card for one from your hand to get a better result. Sometimes you get “+” or “-” which are like advantages/disadvantages in D&D 5th Edition (you pull two cards instead of one and choose the best or worst respectively). The abilities and talents of the creatures are all on easily accessible cards, and there is a minimum of tokens and other fiddliness. All you need to do is flip over your card to see what it can do, then do the card draws as required. Soulstones (if you have any) can be used to further cheat these draws.

This mechanism is really fun and, in conjunction with the wide range of sneaky and devious manoeuvres on the cards, generates a really rich and challenging combat environment. Once you’re used to the rules – which are very easy and quick to pick up, and all there on the card – it’s really easy to make decisions and work out what to do, and with just 5-7 crew members it’s not hard to get abreast of your options. Overall it seems like a really well-designed and fun system. There is a role-playing game of Malifaux coming out soon, and I think it could make a really cool system and game world. This game is well worth trying if you get a chance!

Norman Tebbit Seeks Another Minority Voter

Norman Tebbit Seeks Another Minority Voter

Today’s Guardian has an article on the UK Conservative Party’s “minority problem”: it’s inability to get a decent vote share from non-white British citizens. The article seems to be quite neutral on the issue of the Tory’s appeal and electoral strategies, at times even appearing to be pasting text from a Conservative pollster (at times the voice changes, and it seems to have a slightly different perspective to the main thrust of the article, as if text had been copied from an email).  The key problem for the Tories is that they just don’t seem to be able to muster a decent representation amongst minorities, which in the UK primarily means British of black or South Asian descent, and are being outpolled by Labour at a cracking rate (16% vs. 68% according to a quoted survey). Now that they’re in a coalition with the Liberal Democrats the Tories are starting to realize that even a small improvement in minority vote could have saved them a world of trouble, and as is often the case that huge gap seems like it should be easy pickings. So what is going wrong? The article describes a series of problems which bear more on the party’s image and past representation of its identity, rather than on anything about its current policy content, and I think the problems they face – and the solutions they have begun to recognize as important – are in many ways analagous to the problem of getting more women to participate in role-playing. The ultimate end point for the Tories if they fail to up this vote is also similar to that facing gaming if it doesn’t diversify its appeal: obscurity and insularity.

The problem the Tories have identified is a really frustrating one: a large proportion of minority voters identify with their policy but just won’t vote for the party. They like the content, but are put off by what’s on the box, and by the people they historically associate with the scene. The article sites studies that found

while better-off white people were significantly more likely to vote Conservative than their less wealthy counterparts, the same was not true for non-whites. That is despite the fact that minority groups were more right wing than the majority on the key issue of tax and spend.

and also identified non-white British as naturally inclined to Tory policy:

high-income people, politically on the right, who want a smaller government (and a tough stance on crime and immigration according to other studies) are still much less likely to vote Tory if they are non-white. Whatever the offer, they simply think this is not a party for people like them [emphasis mine].

Basically the problem is not the policies of the party, or some lack of alignment on fundamental shared goals: it is that the party itself turns them off. There’s something wrong, to the extent that one study even found

even when people support an idea (many minorities take a tough stance on immigration for example), finding out it is a Tory policy puts them off

This is a sign that the problem is the way they perceive the party, both presently and as a party with a political past. It’s not difficult to find examples of why minorities might be uncomfortable with the Tories, such as this election slogan from 1964:

If you want a nigger for your neighbour, vote Labour

I guess the person who coined that slogan didn’t think about the effect it would have 30 years or 50 years later, but a slogan like that kind of echoes down the ages, doesn’t it? The studies cited found other problems too: the “go home” anti-immigrant buses, historic support for apartheid, and the author cites her own discomfort at the claim that “multiculturalism has failed.” The posturing on Europe probably also looks different to groups of people who are more suspicious of the xenophobic direction of politics than are mainstream voters – these dog whistles aren’t heard just by the dogs, but also by their prey, and there’s a lot of bad faith that the Tories have to ask potential minority voters to overlook. They were, after all, going to be the blood on the streets in 1964 …

These challenges facing the Tory party are an interesting mirror of one of the main strands of debate about how to engage women in role-playing, and particularly whether the behavior of men in gaming spaces, and the representation of women in gaming, might be part of the problem. I have argued before that the reason that care in representation of women is important is not that they care about seeing tits-and-arse for its own sake, but that images of lingerie-clad sex dolls with chain mail panties mark out the hobby as a male-only space. They serve the role of girly calendars in a workshop, to make women feel like they are intruding in a male space. These tits-and-arse pictures are the “nigger for a neighbour” campaign slogan of gaming. Alongside them comes the behavior of gamer men – the BO problems, the staring, the rampant mansplaining (fuck, gaming must be the only hobby where socially maladjusted dudes mansplain to other men, like alphasplaining or something), and all of this wrapped up in a nice package in which the men in the hobby are aging as a cohort. And on top of that the rape humour, rape games, and barely-suppressed sexual violence of some products. It’s not that women don’t mind a bit of sexual violence in entertainment (hey, GoT is very popular with chicks!) or tits-n-arse (women like to perve on men just as much as men do on women), and everyone who is an adult has learnt to suffer through BO problems (except the sufferers, apparently); it’s the combination of these things as representative face of the hobby that makes women back away smiling. For a long time the hobby (and the world of nerd-dom generally) has made it uncool and uncomfortable for women to be gamers. Even though they might like the content of the games, and be perfectly comfortable with (or even into) the idea of scantily-clad heroes hacking away at orcs, they simply think this is not a party for people like them.

We’re like the conservative party of hobby-space.

The solution has not come rapidly to the gaming community – certainly in past posts on the topic here, and threads I read elsewhere, I get the sense that male gamers often don’t care about women joining their groups, are actively opposed to it, think that changing the way women are represented and written about is “political correctness” or “suppression of artistic freedom,” or think that these aspects of the hobby are a fixed thing like descending armour class, and that the only people who we care to let into the hobby are people who accept these things. This misses the representational issues and the issue of boys’ club mentality, and it means acting as if the preferences of the boys in the group are not actually malleable preferences, but god-given fixed parts of the environment. Just as the Tories have taken the assumption that the only minorities they want in their club are black men and women who are somehow comfortable with a party that until recently publicly called them “niggers.” Because you know, that’s just how it was back then. Now that the Tories have worked out that they’re heading into very difficult times if they don’t start to reach out to a group that constitutes 14% of the population, they’re working first and foremost on those representational issues, and then on trying to show they’re honest about opening up policy to minorities, to try and overcome that sticky sense of bad history that keeps the party glued to the spot.

But hey, the Tories did well: they only ignored 14% of the population. For most of its history the RPG industry has overlooked 50% of the population …

Some people I know think it doesn’t matter – we’re just a hobby after all and there are lots of other things women can do. But I think that the problem is bigger than that. We are aging as a cohort, with only a small number of people joining us, and the kinds of representational issues that keep women from joining us also make non-nerdy men suspicious of us. If we continue to age with only small numbers of (male) newcomers, as a market we will get smaller, with an associated decline in diversity and quality of products available to us. We will stagnate. This is the fate facing the Republicans in the USA, who also have a minority problem but face structural problems in coming to terms with it, and can’t find a way out of this bind of shrinking into obscurity[1]. We don’t need to be like that, and I think some of the more modern game companies have realized that. I read on YDIS that D&D 5th Edition has a wider range of non-white figures in art, and less sexploitation art; games like Malifaux and World of Darkness, while often rooted in an overly gothic and sub-cultural aesthetic, have at least tried to diversify the way they represent women in both art and game terms. I think Ars Magica was the first game I ever read that regularly had female characters as examples, female players as examples, and switched between male and female pronouns in text. These are small things but it’s these representational issues which first and foremost, I think, signify to women that they aren’t welcome. It’s small steps, but if the UK conservative party can do it, surely we can too?

 

fn1: Spit-flecked obscurity, so there is that …

The most well-respected methods for reducing carbon emissions seem to be carbon taxes and carbon price mechanisms. I have written before about how I think they will not work to achieve a zero carbon state, based on lessons from the field of public health. Here I want to explore in a little more detail just what we might expect in the long-term from a carbon taxation system.

An illustrative example: Effects of carbon taxes on fishing

Fish are a staple food in Japan, and fishing is a carbon intensive practice because fishing fleets use diesel oil. We can get a rough estimate of how much carbon is required to produce a single piece of fish, and use this to estimate how price would change under a carbon tax. First, consider the total carbon emitted in catching fish: this website puts it at between 1750 and 3300 kg for a ton of fish, with the highest carbon emission amongst farmed fish. The analysis suggests that 1kg of wild-caught frozen salmon will be associated with 1kg of CO2; a carbon footprint of up to 6Kg can be expected for fish that is caught in say Chile, and shipped to the US. Taking 5kg as a conservative estimate of the carbon footprint of a kg of fish, we can see that  for a carbon tax of $X per ton, $X/200 is added per kg of fish sold in the super market. So for a price of $250 per ton, we get $1.25 per kilogram; for $2500 per ton, we get $12.50 per kilogram.

The Coles website tells me that salmon fillets are currently $30 per kg. A carbon price of $2500 a ton will increase their cost by approximately 30%.

We can calculate the cost for fresh fish in a supply chain directly, so let’s try this for a typical fresh Tokyo fish, Mackerel. The Seafish.org website has a carbon footprint profiler which indicates that you need to take into account “landed to live weight” and “final processed form to landed weight,” which we can estimate fairly conservatively (though I don’t know the details). This ancient paper (pdf) gives an efficiency of about 3% for shrimp fishing, while this FAO document gives landed weights of between 3 and 84%. Working with Mackerel from that document, let’s assume that only 3% of caught fish is actually edible[1], and make that the “landed to live weight” ratio. The FAO provides a handy guide to “conversion factors” for converting landed fish to actual final processed form, as an annex (pdf) to this guide. Taking the mackerel factor, let’s assume that only 50% of the final fish is eaten, in the form of a fillet. The site then asks us to show how much the fish traveled before and after processing, and by what means. Let’s assume it is landed fresh in Tokyo after a 5 day fishing trip, and that it traveled 40km by truck to the processing plant, then 40 km by van to the shops, and was eaten within a day (pretty standard in Tokyo). Using “Trawling for Herring in the NW Atlantic” as our model fishing method, we get 7.4 tons of CO2 for every ton of final product. So we would need to add X/133 to the per kg price of the fish. For a carbon price of $250, that’s $1.90; for $2500, a $19.00 impost. This site tells me that Mackerel in Japan costs between 600 and 8000 Yen per kilogram ($6-80), so a $2500/ton carbon tax would change this price range to $25-100 per kg. The Coles website tells me Australians already pay $20/kg for tinned mackerel – is it very likely that Japanese will baulk at paying $25 for fresh mackerel? Furthermore, this is for the most inefficient live catch and processing values I can find. If the live catch efficiency goes up to 10%, for example, the impost for those carbon taxes drops to $0.60 – $6.

No one on earth is currently considering a $2500 ton carbon tax. Even $250 a ton is considered radical, but $250 a ton will increase the final price of mackerel by $0.60 – $1.90 per kg. Does anyone seriously believe that this impost will be sufficient to force the fishing fleet to go carbon-neutral?

What are the long-term impacts of carbon taxes?

I chose fishing as an example because it differs from electricity generation in one simple way: short of returning to sailboats, there is no viable low-carbon alternative to fossil fuels for fishing boats at present. So the fishing industry will have little choice but to absorb the price of a carbon tax, pass it on to consumers, or disappear, unless and until an alternative energy source becomes available. If our goal is to get to a carbon zero economy and still be able to eat fish, a carbon tax is surely not going to work. But there are other aspects of the economy that are entirely vulnerable to a carbon tax, most especially electricity generation and public transport. So how well are carbon taxes predicted to work in these industries?

There does not seem to be a lot of available modeling on the long-term impact of carbon taxes, but those reports that have been published are not promising. For example, this report by the Citizens’ Climate Lobby describes a carbon tax starting at $10/tonne and increasing to $250/tonne at $10/year. They use four different established models to identify total, and industry- and region-wide effects of the carbon tax. Their final estimate of the effect of the carbon tax is a 50% reduction in emissions by 2035 (page 30). After that the gains decline. This report, from the carbon tax center, proposes a system of tax and credits that appears to correspond with a $113/tonne tax, and would lead to 25% reductions in emissions by 2024 on a 2012 baseline.

350.org says we need to get to 350ppm by the end of the century to avoid catastrophe; we’re currently on 400ppm and increasing at 2ppm per year. If we halve global emissions by 2035, we’ll be above 420ppm, and still increasing.

As another example, my July electricity bill was $66 for 214kwh of electricity. In Tokyo at the moment this is mostly gas, and would (according to Wikipedia) have released a total of 107 kg of CO2, based on median emissions. At $250/ton that’s going to increase my electricity bill by about $25/month. How much electricity use will that discourage? $25 is a cheap meal out with a few drinks. At $2500/ton it’s $250/month – two cheap meals out and two trips to a love hotel. Am I willing to give up two dates a month in order to keep my electricity use unchanged?

I don’t believe that even a $250/ton carbon tax will be sufficient to force carbon neutrality in electricity generation, and $2500/ton, while it will make solar and wind competitive and force a fairly rapid switch to renewables, may not lead to much change in other behavior, especially in industries like shipping and trucking where alternatives are expensive and still barely off the drawing board. The Citizens’ Climate Lobby report tells us that in the USA each $1/ton of carbon tax is a $.009/gallon increase in petrol prices; $2500 a ton will increase petrol prices by $22.5/gallon. Currently in Tokyo gasoline is sold at probably $2/gallon. Will people completely stop using cars at $25/gallon? Given that a single journey in Japan can cost $5 in parking, and a car can travel 35 mpg, i.e. two trips per parking cost, the total cost of those two trips will go from $14 to $35 in Tokyo. Is that sufficient to stop recreational use of cars?

These reports make clear that even sizeable taxes of up to $250/ton are not enough to get where we need to go. The first report, suggesting $10/year increases in the tax, shows the obvious problem – as the tax grows, the incremental benefit of further increases declines, so going to higher taxes will have smaller and smaller effects. By the time we’re at $300/ton, a further $10/year increase will be less than the effect of inflation on prices in many countries. People will stop responding to those taxes by that time. And as I showed in the case of fishing, there will be many industries where this cost can be passed onto consumers with a negligible effect. I routinely buy fish fillets in Tokyo for $2/fillet, am I seriously going to reduce my carbon footprint if the price of such cheap food doubles?

What we need to bear in mind here is that we don’t want to reduce recreational use of cars by 50% over the next 30 years, or by 90%; realistically, any CO2 emitting form of transport needs to be cut by 99%. These taxes alone are not going to do that.

What do we need to do to achieve carbon zero?

Carbon neutrality will not be achieved by taxes alone. We need additional government interventions to make it happen. Carbon taxes with appropriate transfers to ensure that poor people are compensated for the change are a good start, but they are only a start. We need to go a lot further if we want to achieve these goals. Some policy interventions should include:

  • Complete electrification of freight rail: Australia’s rail freight system (indeed all inter-city lines) is still diesel-powered; it should be electrified immediately, so that it can be shifted to a renewable energy source as the taxes bite
  • Expansion of passenger and freight rail: Most Australian cities are heavily dependent on road transport, which for the foreseeable future is immune to carbon abatement policies. As much as possible, the transport network needs to be shifted to rail, that can be electrified
  • Electrification of all buses: all public buses should be immediately electrified
  • Implementation of tollways: all major interstate highways should be shifted to a toll system, with tolls based on both distance travelled and journey speed, and tolls manipulated to ensure long distance travel is always cheaper by train and bus than by car
  • Construction of high speed rail: this is never going to be profitable in Australia, so it should be subsidized by government, using carbon tax proceeds, and prices fixed in such a way that it is always competitive with air travel and private road travel
  • Minimum price for air travel: Air travel will never be carbon neutral, so it needs to be discouraged or people need to find ways to use their journeys more efficiently (i.e. travel less often and stay longer). A minimum price will encourage this, and should be designed so that electric high speed rail is always cheaper
  • Nuclearization of all large ocean-going vessels: if it’s large enough to have a nuclear power source, it should. No freight should be carried on a CO2-emitting ship.
  • Reorientation of commercial fishing fleets around batteries and nuclear tankers: I don’t know if this is possible, but fishing needs to be redesigned so it is carbon neutral. If it isn’t yet possible to design battery powered ships, research funds should be dumped into this
  • A timetable for the banning of internal combustion engines: Some time in the future, internal combustion engines need to be banned. This timetable should be implemented now. By e.g. 2020, gasoline-using cars should be illegal, so people have 6 years to buy a battery car or convert to CNG; by 2025 or 2030, CNG cars should be illegal. That gives a 15 year time frame to completely electrify the personal transport industry
  • Immediate conversion of cars to compressed natural gas: This should be a brief boom industry, as all old cars are converted.
  • Lower all speed limits: so that cars travel more efficiently and private travel is less time-efficient than public transport
  • Ban all new coal-extraction licenses: No new coal mines should be built anywhere in Australia, and furthermore no new development should be allowed in connection with existing mines. Existing infrastructure bottlenecks to efficient extraction should be seen as a good thing.
  • Divestment laws: Investment funds should be required to divest all holdings in carbon-intensive industries on a reasonable but definitive timetable
  • Scale-up of electric charging points: Cars should be rechargable anywhere
  • Mandatory roof-top solar: for all businesses
  • Mandatory grid integration: no power company should be able to refuse a reasonable request to sell power into the grid.
  • Mandatory storage in new buildings, and subsidies to convert existing buildings: apartment blocks are not efficient solar collectors, but they could still be built with sufficient storage that they can store some solar power for release onto the grid at night
  • Ban all rice and cotton production in the Murray-Darling watershed: water needs to be returned to the river for greening of the river course, because restoring natural wetlands and green areas is essential to improving carbon sequestration
  • Huge rewilding and reforestation programs: Carbon sequestration through forestry management is essential, and this project needs to be undertaken immediately, so that it forms a key part of future carbon reduction strategies. It can be conducted in such a way as to support and restore biodiversity
  • Huge research grants on storage and renewable energy: We need to get to the point where electric trucks and ocean-going boats are a possibility within 20 years. This will need research. We should be doing it

And finally, I think that climate change denial should be illegal outside of scientific journals – if people want to claim it’s not happening they should be required to present peer-reviewed scientific evidence. Funding climate change denial should be a criminal act. The government should further refuse to offer contracts to organizations that have hosted denialists or funded denialists in e.g. the last 10 years. These people need to be driven out of public life and should have no influence on public debate. It is absolutely ludicrous that after three of the hottest months on record (April, May and June), the government’s business advisor is publicly claiming that a period of major global cooling is imminent. That dude should be unemployable, and preferably in stocks[2].

A lot of these programs will require major government subsidies, transfers and loans, and huge government intervention across a range of marketplaces. We need to stop acting as if the worst consequence of responding to the climate crisis is government intervention in markets, and start recognizing that it is the minimum requirement to stave off a civilization-level disaster. It’s huge government intervention now, or civilization collapse later.

So go looking back through history and ask yourself – has any civilization collapse ever been preventable through a small tax that raised the price of fish by 10%? I think you’ll find the answer is no. The emergency is coming, and we need to act as if it’s an emergency, not a minor market failure.

fn1: For farmed fish, this number should be near 100%, obviously.

fn2: This is clearly a rhetorical point

Fantasy Flight Games have announced the completion of the Warhamer Fantasy Role-playing Game 3rd Edition (WFRP 3) “line,” i.e. they’ve decided to stop producing any material for it and move on. I suspect this is at least partly because it was not very popular or successful – it’s a somewhat unusual form for a role-playing game, and also very expensive. I suspect a lot of people gave up trying to get the whole experience to work, and it didn’t sell as well as it needed to given its huge production requirements.

I played one and a half campaigns of WFRP 3, in English and Japanese, and from my experience I think that in many ways WFRP 3 was a revolutionary and exciting game. It imported a lot of ideas from board-gaming to provide improved ways to manage PC resources, skills and powers, and used a really interesting dice mechanic to generate rich and complex results for PC actions. Unfortunately, the mechanics are complex and fiddly in practice, requiring lots of space, huge amounts of tokens and a lot of fiddling. The dice mechanic is also just that little bit too complex for GMs to intuitively understand, making it hard for them to design and run adventures, and I don’t believe that Fantasy Flight Games ever came  up with a good way of handling monsters and providing GMs the proper resource- and system-management tools and tips they need to make the game work. I think this is likely a killer in a role-playing game – if you can’t make the complexity accessible and manageable to the GM, you alienate the central 20% of the gaming population that are essential to making the game sell (since players won’t bother buying books for games they can’t find GMs to play with!)

After WFRP 3 Fantasy Flight Games released the Star Wars system, which uses a stripped down and simplified version of both the action system and the dice system from WFRP 3. The Star Wars system seems to be much more accessible and easy to play, and has better introductory material, and may be more practical as a novel game system. I haven’t tried it yet but expect to soon. I have also simplified WFRP 3 and GMd a really cut-down system in a different world, and I found that once it is stripped down to just the dice and skill system it becomes a really neat little system. It is my hope that Fantasy Flight Games will use their experience of Star Wars to develop a simplified, stream-lined classic fantasy RPG based on the WFRP system without all the bells and whistles, using all their experience to date. If they do that, I think it could be a really good way to play fantasy.

In the meantime I hope to use the simplified version of WFRP 3 for more adventures in the Compromise and Conceit world, where I think it works as a system. I won’t be buying more WFRP 3 stuff, but I will be continuing to play around with what I think was a very promising and innovative way of gaming. Let’s hope for more reports in the future …

Riemann surface or Babylon 5 monster? Only a genius can tell ...

Riemann surface or Babylon 5 monster? Only a genius can tell …

Today Maryam Mirzakhani, aged 37, became the first woman ever awarded the Fields prize for mathematics, a prize that is sometimes described as the “Nobel prize of maths.” She was awarded the prize for her work on “Riemann Surfaces and their moduli spaces,” which you can look up in wikipedia but good luck with that. Riemann surfaces are a kind of manifold, which is a space that globally has a complex structure that cannot be easily described mathematically but that reduces locally to a Euclidean space. A good way to think about manifolds is as the problem of ironing your shirt. Globally, your shirt has a twisted and contorted structure which means you can’t conceive of it as a flat surface suitable for ironing; but you can fold out small sections of it into a simple plane, and iron those sections. Manifold theory is essential for higher work in physics, since quantum mechanical topology is not straightforward. The wikipedia page has some nice examples of Riemann surfaces for basic functions plotted in the complex plane (that is, a plane with complex numbers). The example for the square root function shows an application of the theory of Riemann surfaces (I think): you can plot the real part of the square root on the vertical axis, and then obtain the surface for the complex part by a simple 180 degree rotation. For the average mortal, obtaining a result like that will probably make your eyes bleed. For Dr. Mirzakhani I guess it’s breakfast reading.

Dr. Mirzakhani first came to love mathematics in Iran, where she completed high school and undergraduate studies. I find it very interesting that the first woman to win the Field’s prize was educated in a nation that we westerners consider to be very sexist, and furthermore that she comes from a middle-income country. There are nearly a billion people living in high-income, supposedly comparatively gender-equal nations, but the first female Fields prize winner comes from a middle-income country with a bad record on women’s rights. I think this is indicative of two things: first of all, Iran’s strong support of science; and secondly, the west’s overbearingly sexist attitude towards maths and science. While we in the west like to pride ourselves on the equality of the sexes, it is my opinion that attitudes towards femininity and science in the west are still very backward, and there are major cultural and institutional factors that push women away from fields that they are perfectly capable of performing well in. We also see this in the world of gaming and nerd pursuits, where women are vastly under-represented. This problem does not exist in Asia, where women are encouraged to take up scientific and nerdy pursuits. Certainly in Japan, there is no question about whether a woman could or should do mathematics – it is to be encouraged and admired, and many forms of mathematics that we in the west would consider to be “advanced” or “optional” parts of education (and therefore, through institutional and cultural pressure, tend to select men to learn) are considered an essential and basic part of a woman’s education in Japan. I see this as an Asia-wide phenomenon, and I suspect that it is true of Iran as well that women are considered capable of mathematical achievement. In this aspect of gender equality, I think the west has a long way to go.

Dr. Mirzakhani is also a sterling example of another aspect of maths education that I consider important, and that I have written about before on this blog: it depends very strongly on the attitude of your teachers, and especially on their ability to get students engaged in mathematics and to keep them trained. Dr. Mirzakhani was not originally interested in mathematics, but had her interest fired by a brother’s stories and a teacher’s encouragement. She also was not initially very good at mathematics, but stuck at it, saying:

I can see that without being excited mathematics can look pointless and cold. The beauty of mathematics only shows itself to more patient followers

It takes time and encouragement to develop mathematical skills, and teachers who ignore the slower students because they assume they lack “talent,” or who discourage certain groups or people from taking up this field, are both denying their society the chance to deepen and broaden the level of cultural knowledge of an essential discipline, and also are denying the possibility of access to a beautiful and inspirational world of thought, simply on the basis of their own prejudices. Dr. Mirzakhani obviously benefited from a series of teachers who like to inspire interest and support effort, and don’t judge their students’ potential on the basis of poor early development or gender. The world needs more teachers like those who encouraged Dr. Mirzakhani. Dr. Mirzakhani herself commented on barriers to entering and staying in mathematics earlier this year, suggesting that they are not being lowered:

The social barriers for girls who are interested in mathematical sciences might not be lower now than they were when I grew up. And balancing career and family remains a big challenge. It makes most women face difficult decisions which usually compromise their work

Hopefully this award will be another small step to breaking down some of those social barriers, and encouraging more women into mathematics.

The Guardian article on Dr. Mirzakhani also contains a very nice and powerful quote from another Fields prize winner, Manjul Bhargava:

The mathematics that has been the most applicable and important to society over the years has been the mathematics that scientists found while searching for beauty; and eventually all beautiful and elegant mathematics tends to find applications

I think the importance of beauty and aesthetic sense in driving discoveries in mathematics and physics is often understated, but when you listen to mathematicians and physicists talk it is clear that it is a really important part of how they conceive of problems and solutions. There is an unexpected and deep relationship between our sense of symmetry and beauty, and the deep truths of the natural world. This is also the reason that people who understand mathematics find it so compelling and almost mystical in its beauty, and why I think it is not just an issue of shrunken talent pools when some groups of people are prevented from fully enjoying this field – they are being held back from being part of something truly profound. It’s good to see that whatever barriers still exist for women entering mathematics in Iran or the west, Dr. Mirzakhani was able to overcome them and join this small group of people peering into the deep mysteries of our universe.

The Hobby Lobby decision has opened up a pandora’s box of potential legal claims for exemptions from the Affordable Care Act under the umbrella of religion, especially since it’s very difficult for the court to rule on what is a deeply-held religious belief and what is not. There will be a whole queue of weirdos now lining up to get their particular weird tinfoil belief exempted from insurance, or looking for excuses to not offer insurance under the ACA, and you can bet that one of the first movements to get to the courts will be the anti-vaxxers.

When Obamacare was first being floated, Republicans made a big fuss about death panels, in which a body of old men with no experience of health care (federal judges, in fact!) would decide whether a person was worthy of care, and what care they could receive, on non-medical grounds. This, we were warned, is the inevitable consequence of socialism. Well, the Hobby Lobby decision – which was supported by Republicans –  guarantees that Americans get to experience just exactly that. A body of old men (federal judges) will decide whether a person is worthy of care, and what care they can receive, on non-medical grounds.

Because Religious Freedom!

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