Wednesday What We’re Reading (Jan. 13, 2021)

Happy New Year! 2021 is already off to a flying start, but you’re not here for commentary on that, presumably.

Miscellaneous Entertainments

  • I had cannily planned to hold off on watching The Mandalorian until all the episodes had released, then binge it during the free trial, only to discover that there is no longer a free trial deal. Oops. Well, season 2 has been good so far. No spoilers.
  • Also, since we had to subscribe to Disney+ to see The Mandalorian, and we get as many blocks of one month subscription as it takes us to finish it, I also got to see The Rise of Skywalker, which is the only thing worse than irredeemable crap: redeemable crap. I’ll be turning a conversation I had with parvusimperator into a review in the coming days.
  • On the PC games front, I’ve been playing From the Depths, a block-based vehicle building. Think Minecraft meets Waterworld meets Friedman’s U.S. Battleships. A pretty good buoyancy simulation and some well-designed, if not entirely realistic, ballistics and armor math makes for interesting shipbuilding, and the presence of several game modes with actual beginnings, middles, and ends (as opposed to the standard block-builder ‘survive and build’ mode) gives you something to do with your ludicrously large naval guns. Weighing against it is the jankiness in the UI.

The ‘Rona

  • The lab leak hypothesis gets its moment in New York Magazine – Republicans are out of power, so now media lefties are allowed to say obvious things without risk of being associated with wrongthink.
  • Kind of a shame we used up our collective capacity for tolerating restrictions over the summer, when it was not bad, instead of now, when it is.



  • A tour of R-100 – The old British zeppelin. It’s a little on the cozy side, but! A zeppelin! Also, and this is why I’m not a zeppelin designer in real life, arranging the cabins so that they can get natural light from the windows despite being inboard of the promenades and balconies is delightfully clever.

Science and Technology

  • American media continues Russophobic attacks – Blaming the (Czech-developed, though by Russians with ties to Russia) JetBrains tool suite for hacks in the US. JetBrains, of course, denies it, and nothing further has come of it.


Grab Bag

Wednesday What We’re Reading (Dec. 30, 2020)

I’ve been trying to sell a light horror story on and off for a year or two, and have had nibbles but no luck. It’s one of my best, and I want to get on to writing more in the same universe. I’m thinking about serializing it over at Many Words Main instead, and going for a once-per-week update schedule again. Thoughts?


The ‘Rona

Science and Technology


Grab Bag

Fishbreath Plays: Little Wars

I wrote about Little Wars briefly in my last post, and thanks to a family get-together on Christmas Eve, I was able to play a small game for the very first time. I present to you the First Battle of Adam’s Ridge.

On the western edge of the field, my men, the blue army (French models).


Infantry in staggered ranks to make them a harder artillery target, with cavalry concentrated on my left.

On the eastern edge of the field, my brother, with the red (British) army:


He decided to concentrate his forces in the center, perhaps to respond more quickly to any moves I made to the flanks.

And now, the field, looking from east to west:


The central feature of this battlefield is Butterfly Hill. To its northeast and southwest runs the eponymous Adam’s Ridge, with the warehouse (the eSun filament box) at the northeastern end and the factory (the Hatchbox filament box) at the southwest end.

Due north of Butterfly Hill, to the right of the photo, is the fairground, and due south is the toy shop.

My brother won the toss and deferred, so I went first, advancing my cavalry force toward the fairground and moving my infantry in the direction of shelter under Butterfly Hill. I kept my right gun back by the factory, where it would remain for the whole battle, while the left gun moved forward with the cavalry.

Because the field was a bit small end-to-end, we decided to let the guns open fire after the first round, instead of after the second.

That brings us to about here, which is the end of the second round.


I’ve continued my advance toward the fairgrounds, and have reached cover from red’s guns, although they lost two of their number along the way. My men advancing on Butterfly Hill have lost several of their number to artillery fire, but my guns have done a respectable job in reply, dramatically thinning out the bunched forces in red’s center.

Bonus action shot, mid-round 2, as my brother aims a gun toward my artillery crew by the factory.


On to round 3!


I’m concentrating my cavalry at the fairgrounds, in the hopes of making a rush at red’s gun by the warehouse, and have moved my left gun up to Butterfly Hill, which is a dire threat to red’s center. Even long-range artillery can pretty quickly dismantle forces out of cover. This close, it’s easy.

To make it a little easier to move the gun to Butterfly Hill, my gun at the factory engaged the soldiers manning red’s gun opposite. If you look closely, you’ll notice it only has three men nearby, which means it’s out of action. I took that opportunity to send the infantry from Butterfly Hill on a march toward the warehouse: I don’t have enough cavalry there to charge the guns and win.

Round 4:


My guns did indeed exact a heavy toll on red’s center, but my force marching for the warehouse is now substantially smaller too. I think he had eleven men with his right gun (the one on my left), and I had eight cavalry behind the fairground at this point.

Red is attempting to get some cavalry around my right, behind the toy shop and the factory.

Notice also that red’s southern gun is out of action again. You only need four men near a gun, but having more seems to make artillery a lot more durable. Too, I think I probably failed to explain how guns work (four men within six inches, put two behind the wheels at the back of the trail after firing) to my brother, which led to his artillerymen being awfully exposed most of the time.

He has, however, moved his gun by the warehouse to the other side, where it can fire on my gun at Butterfly Hill.

Round 5:


Both of red’s guns are back in action again, and a fair number of my infantry made it to the warehouse alive—I have a slight edge in numbers there, but am handicapped by the fact that it’s a combined arms attack. The infantry are still two turns away, or at least most of them are. I think. Looking at the photo, I might have been able to drive home a successful, if costly, attack by looping the infantry around the south end of the warehouse, while the cavalry took the northern route.

In the south, the gun at the factory brought down two of the four attacking cavalry. The other two are slightly out of frame to the south.

Round 6:


I didn’t see the potential for a multi-pronged attack in the moment, however. My brother played it smart and moved his northern gun back a bit, so that it wouldn’t be put out of action in a melee around the factory, and would be in perfect situation to blast any cavalry who engaged.

At which point I looked at the field, felt relatively confident in my advantage, and decided to fall back, which may go down in history as a McClellan-esque bit of caution. We ended the battle by mutual agreement at this point: I didn’t feel like I had a sufficient force advantage to press an attack successfully, and he felt the same way.

Having both started with 68 points of troops, I finished with 50 to his 37.5, for a victory for me. By the objective we’d chosen, I think it would have been most appropriate for us to split the 100 victory points, which would have brought the tally to 100 to 87.5.

Now, on to reactions!

To start with, the rules seem to work very well. Wells obviously played a fair bit of this before he put his rules to paper, given how few the rough edges are and how well they generate something that looks like a real battle.

Notably, we didn’t get to try out the close combat rules: gunnery proved a bit too effective. We’ll probably play next game with one gun per side. Wells recommended one gun per 40 or 50 men. A slightly higher ridge probably would have helped too: it didn’t end up being an obstacle to artillery, whereas if we’d used a few more layers of magazines to build it, it might have, or at least provided some partial cover.

It may be a little too easy to silence guns, but that could also be my brother’s imperfect grasp of the artillery rules. The guns performed well, firing with plenty of power to bring down soldiers and cavalry alike. I think the best shell of the game took down four? I might experiment with a slightly thinner spring, even—I need to order a batch of boxes anyway, since the filament boxes don’t quite fit the taller sorts of soldier, and I could always add spring steel to a McMaster-Carr order. One downside is that the late prototype guns (the ones printed in white plastic) don’t have quite the right tolerances, so their wheels were frequently falling off. Less than ideal. Too, gray is a very bad color for the shells. The next batch I do will probably be in white or red—something to stand out against your average carpet.

In spite of some initial doubt, we ended up playing with the prescribed three-minute time limit. It did its job perfectly: we didn’t have a ton of time to sight in guns, and when we did to ensure we got hits we needed to, we were short on time to do other things. I had to skip moving men once or twice, and made some bad movement decisions a few times because of the clock. A brief aside: Wells wrote about having to find a big clock with a second hand, or wrangle a visitor with a stopwatch into refereeing, which speaks to a timekeeping problem ubiquitous cell phones have relegated to history.

Even though we didn’t get to exercise the close combat/isolation/surrender rules, I was thinking about them as the game was ongoing, and they made a lot of sense: most of the melees that might have happened involved unsupported forces, and would have yielded some prisoner-taking. Given the situations we encountered, it seems like they’d work substantially better than I would have guessed.

Finally, we forgot or misapplied a few rules, but I don’t think it had a serious effect on the outcome of the game. Neither of us were playing the tryhard, but if someone were to do so, I think insisting on rules-following would make it relatively resistant to munchkinry.

All told, an extremely successful first battle, and I suspect we’re going to have a second one today.

Fishbreath Fabricates: Britains 4.7″ naval gun toy

Are you familiar with Little Wars? In 1913, novelist H. G. Wells published it, the first set of rules for miniatures wargaming available to the public. Toy soldiers careen across carpeted (or cork-floored, in the original conception, but I don’t have a cork-floored playroom) countryside, under fire from spring-loaded toy cannon as they charge home for glory.

“Sounds great! Where do I start?” I said. Well, toy soldiers aren’t too hard to find, but I decided that I can print better ones, or perhaps eventually cast them in resin from silicone molds around 3D-printed masters.

The mighty artillery, however, is the sticking point. Nobody makes toy cannons of the right power anymore, and the early-20th-century originals from Britains Ltd. run about $50 a piece. Not exactly cheap, and especially not when a Little Wars game of moderate size might call for six or ten guns. I have in my possession, however, a 3D printer and a copy of FreeCAD, and armed with these tools, I set about fixing this availability problem, with the help of my Thanksgiving vacation.

That holiday at my in-laws being a pretty sedate affair—an awful lot of movies1 and television—I had ample time to Google my way to a minimum understanding of how to CAD, or at least how to use one of several alternative (or redundant, uncharitably) workflows in FreeCAD. Et voila!

Continue reading

Wednesday What We’re Reading (Dec. 9, 2020)

The spammers in the spam queue have gotten a lot less creative lately, but with better grammar, they’re sneaking through the automated filter a bit more often. Fascinating tradeoffs in spam design.

Word of the Week

  • I used ‘boustrophedonic‘ to describe a neat, even winding on a spool of 3D printer filament.


Science and Technology


Grab Bag

Bureaucracy: a game mechanic idea

I’m creeping toward the end of a game of Stellaris, and an incongruity hit me: why am I hiring more bureaucrats to make things in my large empire cheaper, against all reason and every historical example?

Let me explain. In Stellaris, there is a soft cap on the size of your empire: sprawl. Population, production buildings, and territory all generate sprawl. Bureaucrats increase your sprawl cap. If you go over your sprawl cap, things cost more. Ergo, bureaucrats make things cost less, which is facially absurd.

But how do you solve it? I think the answer is that maybe you don’t, or at least not entirely. You just need to measure two things: first, sprawl, which bureaucrats counteract, and second, administrative efficiency. Sprawl works like it does in Stellaris: the more empire there is, the more expensive things get, unless you have administrators to counteract the effect.

Administrative efficiency models the loss of efficiency from thicker red tape. The more administrators you have, the lower your efficiency gets, and the more things cost. Administration is less expensive than a vast kleptocracy, but still expensive compared to a smaller, leaner state.

Of course, that’s just a surface-level implementation. You might tune things so that size of empire and size of administrative state play off of each other, which would let you (imaginary game-designing reader) set a soft cap on effective empire size. Or, if you’re really into the concept that bureaucracy is at best a mixed bag, implement a kind of cost disease.

After a while, the goal of any large organization of humans becomes ‘justify this organization’s continued existence’. Bureaucracies almost never shrink over the long run, absent some outside cataclysm. They’re much more likely, instead, to grow. So, a given unit of bureaucracy is created to administer a given amount of stuff. The amount of stuff per unit bureaucracy never goes up, but the administrative cost of each unit of bureaucracy does.

Which brings us to the final form of the idea. When your empire expands, it needs bureaucrats. When you hire bureaucrats, you introduce a slowly-growing ossification into the structure of your empire. Eventually, your bureaucrats cut into your ability to do productive things, taking up more and more of your output until your empire is paralyzed by the cost of running itself, and eventually torn down by forces without.

This neatly mirrors some real-world trajectories. Depending on how you tune things (capping the penalty one bureaucrat imposes, tweaking the rate at which the penalty grows) it’s probably possible to set up an empire that can survive in a sort of semi-stasis, handicapped but not quite self-destructing. It opens the door to a wide variety of empire traits and events (moral, dutiful bureaucrats who aren’t as bad in the long run, bursts of patriotic fervor in e.g. a war temporarily reversing the downward trend, and so forth) to boot.

Anyway, I’m not working on anything in the 4X/empire-builder genre, so if you like it, take it. I’d love to play a game which leans into this idea.

Wednesday What We’re Reading (Dec. 2, 2020)

And we’re at issue #100!

I’ll level with you: I didn’t end up doing anything special (although maybe I will as the year winds down). I’ve been consumed instead with a fabrication project that will definitely yield an article or two on the process, and will hopefully yield a few articles on the underlying reason for the project over the next year.

That cryptic statement aside, here’s the news.


Science and Technology


Grab Bag

Wednesday What We’re Reading (Nov. 25, 2020)

Issue #99! Thank you for following along for the two-ish years we’ve been sharing what passes for our reading list. I’ll maybe try to do something big for the next one of these—going back and finding predictions might be fun.


  • I’m in the middle of Brian Enos Practical Shooting Beyond Fundamentals, and finding it useful. He’s gotten past the Zen-iest bits at the beginning, and some of his notes on grip and sight focus have stuck with me. Hopefully they pay off at the range.
  • Parvusimperator is probably reading things too.


Science and Technology

  • We might get a negative leap second – This will, of course, blow up a large amount of computer timekeeping infrastructure, because we computer people didn’t think of that.
  • Arecibo radio observatory to be decommissioned – Sad to lose an awesome piece of engineering as well as a big radio observatory, but Arecibo was also the biggest active radar dish in the world too, which will leave us still more vulnerable to alien invasion.
  • There are now three COVID vaccines in the home stretch. AstraZeneca’s, which is (probably; sample sizes are awful small) less effective than the first two candidates to pull out of the final corner, is also substantially cheaper ($3 per dose against $20+) and requires no more cold storage than a minifridge, and AstraZeneca says they can manufacture about 1.5 billion double-dose courses in 2021, against a few hundred million of the others.


Grab Bag

Wednesday What We’re Reading (Nov. 11, 2020)

I’m a few weeks late in mentioning this, but Parvusimperator no longer works in the office next to me. He’s moved on to greener pastures; he requested I not say exactly where, but I will remark that you’d recognize the name.


Science and Technology


Grab Bag

Wednesday What We’re Reading (Nov. 4, 2020)

If you’re the kind of person who looks at the URL bar, you might have noticed we went from a URL ending in 95 to one ending in 95-2 to one ending in 97. Getting real close to that centennial now.



Science and Technology


Grab Bag

Decision 2020