Best Flop I've Seen Since Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World

The failure of John Carter to perform at the box office serves to remind me, once more, that my definition of 'good' and that of the broader public intersect only rarely.

For those who don't know, John Carter, né A Princess of Mars, is an early twentieth century science-fantasy action-adventure romp. It's a purely old-school adventure movie, almost pulp in its lighthearted enjoyment of the sweeping vistas, fantastical technologies, half-naked heroes (male and female) and, of course, sword fights. Because no matter how advanced a civilization's technology may be, if you want a really good adventure story, you need to work a swordfight in there, somewhere. The basic story is that John Carter of Virginia is swept to Mars, called Barsoom by the indigenous inhabitants, through an accidental encounter with an enigmatic techno-wizard. Once there, Carter finds his Earth-bred muscles more than a match for both the gravity and inhabitants of Mars, to the point that he can barely walk without catapulting himself into the sky at first, and before he truly understands how much more fragile the people of Barsoom are he accidentally kills one with a single blow. Caught up by the green-skinned, four-armed Tharks, thinly disguised indigenous North Americans right down to being disdainful of the more European-like 'red' Martians, Carter intervenes in an airship battle to save the Princess Dejah Thors from the clutches of the warlord Sab Than, and gets swept up in the millennium-old war between Thors' Helium and Than's Z, putting him ultimately on a collision course with the mysterious techno-wizards who back Than for reasons all their own.

If the story sounds familiar, well, odds are you've seen it somewhere before. Carter's Mars-bound capabilities were one of the inspirations of the early Superman (when he could only leap, not fly), and no less than George Lucas has claimed the stories influenced him immensely. This can actually be a problem for John Carter, for the simple reason that while the stories introduced many of the science-fiction action-adventure, by this point they are cliches, nonetheless. To its credit, though, the movie ultimately transcends as many of the cliches as it falls prey to. The princess may need rescuing, but she's far from helpless, and while there's a bit of a 'Mighty Whitey' element to Carter's interactions with the Tharks, there's far less than in, say, Avatar or The Last Samurai or the like. And of course, while airships may be something of a worn-out signifier of being on a strange new world, it's hard to think of any nearly so pretty as the ones in John Carter.

Which isn't to say the movie doesn't have flaws. The opening is unnecessarily long and slow, with a completely pointless flashback to the first meeting of Than and the techno-mage Therns that really should have been inserted in as a story told by Thors later, if it had to be there at all. Then there's a bunch of running around for reasons you literally will not learn until the end of the movie, where they only half pay off. Really, the story could have skipped clear up to Burroughs arriving at the house to read the journal without damaging the storyline, and it would have greatly improved the flow of the early scenes. There are also a few rough character edges; Thors declares she cannot marry Than, even for the sake of peace, because of his monstrous ways, but in most of Than's scenes he appears to be no more or less bloodthirsty a monster than you'd expect the leader of a city at war for a thousand years to be. There's also an underdeveloped incident with one of the female Tharks repeatedly bullying another, the ultimate reason for which the viewer is left simply to guess. And of course, the Therns themselves are a bit weak in their ineffability; while it makes perfect sense that neither Carter nor Thors nor Than himself really know who they are or what they truly want, it makes them rather hard to take seriously as villains. They appear to have no real aim, just the maintenance of the status quo until Mars' biosphere collapses entirely, and the only explanation is an off-hand comment that they somehow feed on the process. Are they planetary vampires? Are they nourished by certain chemical by-products of the process? Are they simply being poetic? The movie never really tells us, and ultimately that's probably the biggest mark against it.

Still and all, though, it's a very solid action-adventure film. Part spectacle and part character piece, John Carter does an admirable job of keeping the viewer solidly entertained for nearly the entirety of its run; certainly there are no stretches so dull and pointless as, say, pod-racing. If you're looking for a fun way to spend an evening, you could certainly do worse than to go see John Carter. And hey, if it does well enough on dvd, it may even get the sequels it so clearly wanted to set up this time around.

A fellow can dream, at least.


A Statistically Perfect Spread of Results

After a month's hiatus, caused in part by a personal matter and in part by the last tournament's being way up at 2500 points, I headed back up to Black Knight to once more throw my Tau's lives away on the field of battle. The game was set for 1500, a point level I much prefer, and I went in cautiously optimistic. After all, I had a major win in the team tournament, and a minor win on my own at the game before that; it certainly seems like I'm getting better. Hope springs eternal, if nothing else!

My army:
Shas'el w/Airbursting Fragmentation Projector, Missile Pod, Multi-Tracker
3 x XV8 w/Plasma Rifle, Missile Pod, Multi-Tracker
3 x XV8 w/Plasma Rifle, Missile Pod, Multi-Tracker
3 x XV8 w/Twin-Linked Missile Pod, Flamer
8 x Fire Warriors w/Devilfish, Disruption Pod, Flechette Discharger
8 x Fire Warriors
5 x Pathfinders w/Devilfish, Disruption Pod, Flechette Discharger
Piranha w/Fusion Blaster, Disruption Pod, Flechette Discharger
2 x XV88 w/Advanced Stabilization System
XV88 w/Advanced Stabilization System
Hammerhead w/Railgun, 2 x Burst Cannons, Disruption Pod, Multi-Tracker

I don't usually go with unbalanced units; call me anal, but they just bug me.  But I had a feeling I'd need more anti-tank this game, and the fusion blasters on my shas'el and Piranha have never really been what you'd call reliable.  Also, they're criminally short-ranged, meaning they're basically suicide weapons.  So, one XV88 in, eight Fire Warriors out.  Let's see if I turned out right, or if I could have used those extra Fire Warriors more, after all.

Round 1: Mark Hillman (Chaos Space Marines)

Kharn the Betrayer
4 x Terminators w/Heavy Flamer
5 x Terminators w/3 x Meltas, Chainfist, 2 x Lightning Claws
10 x Chaos Space Marines w/Flamer, Lascannon
10 x Chaos Space Marines w/Flamer, Lascannon
Land Raider w/Possession, Combi-Melta
Land Raider w/Possession, Combi-MElta
Predator w/Twin-Linked Lascannon, 2 x Lascannon Sponsons, Dozer Blade

Deployment: Dawn of War
Major Objective: Capture & Control
Minor Objective: Big Game Hunter (1 point for every HQ unit, vehicle, MC and walker)

Ahh, my old enemy; the Land Raider. In all the games I've seen those behemoth metal boxes on the other side of the table, I have managed to down exactly one of them. And this, despite pouring quite liberal amounts of railgun fire into their heavily armoured hides. For all that people talk smack about these things online, I've personally found them nothing but trouble to deal with on the tabletop.

Mark won the roll-off to deploy first, and opted to push one of his squads clear up to the midway line, aggressively encroaching on my deployment zone, while the rest of his army hung back off the table edge. In response, I left my entire army off the table edge, and this time thankfully remembered not to try to seize. Mark brought his Land Raiders in together on the right side of the board (all 'sides' will be from my perspective, for the record), both loaded with Terminators, and Kharn bulking up the four-strong squad, his Predator in on the centre and sent his other Chaos Marines to the left, towards his objective. In response, I walked my XV88 duo on to the right, with the Fire Warriors clumped in front of them, the Deathrains to their left and the Piranha moving flat-out up the right board edge, while my 'el jumped up behind a ruin, on the far side of which was Mark's aggressive side, along with a squad of Fireknives, and the two Devilfish screened the second Fire Warrior squad and the Pathfinders while they hustled for a trench, the other XV88 and my Hammerhead anchoring my left flank along with the second Fireknife squad. The Night Fight rules turned out not to be much of an impediment, given how forward Mark had sent his one squad, and a torrent of close-range fire knocked four Marines out of it right from the start. In response, Mark managed to take out one of my two XV88s with lascannon fire, and that was it, everything else either falling short of seeing their targets or being blocked by disruption pods and cover. Unfortunately, that favourable exchange did not remain in force for long.

I blame the Land Raiders. I don't know what witchery enchants them, but they seem proof against all I can throw at them. My Piranha even managed to get close enough to give them a shot for once, and even scored a hit, only to roll a grand total of 4 on 2D6 for penetration. So much for the unstoppable power of melta! I did drop the forward Marine squad down to two models, who broke and ran, and shot the other squad down to just three Marines. Unfortunately, the Land Raiders, assisted by the Predator, managed to kill off all my XV88s, my Deathrains, the Piranha, my right-hand Fire Warrior squad and immobilize one of my Devilfish, while the four Terminators chainfisted the other Devilfish and shot up the left-most Fireknife squad, with Kharn himself making quick work of my 'el. While I still had a respectable amount of army left on Turn 5, with a full-strength Fire Warrior squad stuck in their immobilized Devilfish, the full-strength Pathfinders hiding in the trench, and my untouched Hammerhead, along with most of a Fireknife squad that had managed to reduce the weaker Terminator squad to half strength, Kharn was sitting on my objective, the three remaining unbroken Chaos Marines were on Mark's, and my Hammerhead didn't have the range to contest before the game ran out. Having lost control of my own objective and failed to shift Mark from his, I'd conceded the major objective, and with his unscathed Land Raiders and Predator compared to an exploded Devilfish and Piranha, I'd lost the minor objectives, as well. Having done a better job of playing to the mission than I, Mark walked away with a Major Win, and started me off with an inauspicous Major Loss, against one of the oldest and least well regarded codexes in the game. It wasn't WD-Sisters or Chaos Daemons, but still...

Round 2: Graham Wilson (Grey Knights)

Brother Champion
5 x Purifiers w/Halberds
5 x Terminators w/Psycannon
10 x Strike Squad w/2 x Psycannons, Psybolt, Rhino
10 x Interceptors w/Psybolt
Stormraven w/Twin-Linked Lascannon, Multimelta
Dreadnought w/2 x Twin-Linked Autocannons, Psybolt

Deployment: Pitched Battle
Major Objective: Seize Ground
Minor Objective: Moral Victory (destroy the opponent's most expensive Troop unit)

I'd been looking forward to a rematch with Graham, a friend from the old Mohawk anime club, since he just managed to squeeze out a Major Victory on me last game with a fair bit of luck. And having suffered a crushing defeat of his own first round, it seems we'd both been matched up against each other in the lower tiers of the competitors, which was just fine by me. Graham won the roll off and opted for his side, with a bastion-tower and maze-like ruin flanked by smaller ruins towards the edges of the table, while I got a tall radio tower, a shallow arc of three-storey ruins, and a loading dock full of to-scale boxes and shipping crates. All told, this was not a bad deal for me, since the radio tower and the ruins both provided excellent vantage points for my XV88s, and the shipping crates were just the right height to completely shield a trio of battlesuits. Graham wisely set up in as much cover as he could, his Rhino with the Strike Squad (the Moral Victory target) hiding in the maze-ruins, his Terminators, Dreadnought and Stormraven with embarked Purifiers behind the tower, his Interceptors off to the right in a bit of ruin there and his Vindicare down in the ruins on the left. As mentioned, I put my two XV88s on the multi-storey ruin, with the Pathfinders on the floor below them, and my lone XV88 on top of the radio tower, with a unit of Fire Warriors. The Hammerhead hung out on the left-most board edge, while in the centre my two Devilfish and the Piranha served as a wall of cover for both Fireknife squads and my 'el, with the Deathrains off on the right, behind the shipping crate. Lacking anywhere good to put them, and worried about shunting Strike Squads, I left my second Fire Warrior squad in reserve. We both rolled up two objectives, which we placed in areas of heavy cover close to our respective edges, and with my failure to seize the initiative, Graham made his moves.

The game started off with a fairly even trade. He managed to pop one of my XV88s and suppress most of my vehicles thanks to his psybolt-enhanced Psycannons, stunning a Devilfish and immobilizing and weapon-destroying a Piranha; in return, I shot down his Stormraven, blew up his Rhino, and killed a guy in the explosion. Unfortunately, the Purifiers who'd been in the Stormraven used their Deep Strike disembarkation to actually scatter ten inches closer to my Hammerhead, but for the rest of it I was pretty satisfied. The only problem? With the Rhino gone, the Strike Squad were now hidden behind a wall just a little taller than themselves, making them impossible to target. So much for the minor objective this round! On the other hand, with the Strike Squad completely obscured they couldn't shoot out, either, which meant two fewer Psycannons to deal with. Graham and I continued to trade fire, with my Fire Warriors taking three turns to get into position and put down that Vindicare, my solo XV88 actually taking three turns to do anything at all to the AV12 Dreadnought (though it was wrecked once I finally did), and my Deathrains and 'el popping up to pepper the Interceptors. The Interceptors opted not to sit back and get shot, however, and advanced into midfield, intent I suspect on shooting my 'el to death (his indirect-fire weapon could theoretically have picked away at the Strike Squad, and with some truly awful luck on his part even have taken them to half-strength or briefly broken them off the objective), shunting up to annihilate my Deathrains, and then sitting on my objective and forcing me to dislodge them, a difficult task. I say I suspect, however, because they didn't really get past step one. Exposed by their advance, the squad was blasted to pieces by both Fireknife squads, leaving my Deathrains unmolested and my own objective free for a Devilfish full of Fire Warriors to cruise over and claim. Graham's last chance came in the form of his Purifiers, who attempted to advance around the radio tower and climb the ladder to contest the objective on top, and despite the best efforts of two pairs of Gun Drones and both of the remnants of the Fireknife squads, it looked like he might just make it. But then, he failed to get close enough to the ladder to make it clear up, leaving him out of position when the game ended on Turn 5. With both of us sitting on two objectives, and neither of us having managed the minor victory (he only lost the Rhino and one guy, I didn't even lose that much), it was a straight draw, clean down the middle.

A word on the game's MVP; it really has to be Graham's Dreadnought. That thing took round after round of railgun fire, only dying in Turn 4, and before it went it helped dismantle most of my floating cover (my second Devilfish and Piranha) and clipped one of my Fireknife teams, taking out a member and nearly breaking them. More importantly, however, the damn thing tied up my sole surviving XV88 for almost the entire game, distracting it from putting railgun rounds into the Terminators on top of the bastion tower. While I did manage to pick off one or two with other weapons, I could never quite marshal the firepower necessary to deal with such a distant threat. Yes, it's important to play the mission, but you still have threats you have to address, too.

Round 3: Doug Simmons (Necrons)

Anrakyr the Traveller
Harbinger of Destruction w/Eldritch Lance, Solar Pulse, Gaze of Flame
Triarch Stalker w/Twin-Linked Heavy Gauss Cannon
Triarch Stalker w/Twin-Linked Heavy Guass Cannon
9 x Immortals
10 x Warriors, Necron Lord w/Warscythe, Harbinger of Destruction w/Tachyon Arrow
10 x Warriors
10 x Warriors
5 x Scarabs
5 x Scarabs
5 x Scarabs
Doomsday Ark

Deployment: Spearhead
Major Objective: Annihilation
Minor Objective: King of the Hill (objective in the centre of the table)

Ah, Necrons. I don't care what anyone says, Necrons are a good matchup for Tau Empire. As if to balance that out, though, I managed to fail the roll-off for the third and final time, letting Doug decide which quarter he wanted. This table was a particularly sparse, a desert table with a large Imperial military outpost off-centre and some low hills arranged fairly equitably around all four quadrants. Doug's choice was pretty arbitrary, mostly just setting up where he happened to be standing, though he did get the military outpost for one of his Warrior squads, so that worked for him. He placed his Doomsday Ark in the corner with a nice field of view, and arranged the rest of his army along an arc, close to the 12" line from the centre of the table. The terrain encouraged him to break up into two fire bases, with Anrakyr, a Harbinger and an Immortal squad close to the centre, the second Warrior squad in a small ruin just to the right and back from them, and the third squad on the far side of the ruin from me, with a Triarch Stalker on either side of the ruins and the scarabs spread out to go around the military outpost and ruins, poised to sweep pretty much anywhere on the board. In response, I hung back towards the edge, my XV88s in a bit of area terrain along with my Pathfinders, my vehicles arrayed to give cover to everything else. Failing once more to seize, as well, the fight was on, with Doug going first.

The early Necron shooting was pretty ineffectual, with no serious casualties. The biggest thing Doug managed, in fact, was to stun my Hammerhead, which proved more telling than might have been imagined when, on turn 2, he tore its railgun clean off and immobilized it; given the heavy emphasis on 4+ saves in Doug's army, not to mention all those lovely little T3 swarm-style scarabs, the loss of that S6 AP4 large blast was actually pretty serious. And of course, my first round of return fire was pretty weak, with that Solar Pulse forcing Night Fight onto me and some bad rolls crippling my range. I poked away at a few threats, sent my two Devilfish racing off into the two adjacent quarters and hid my Piranha way up in the opposite left quarter. But the loss of my Hammerhead's railgun ultimately proved to be the most telling blow Doug struck that game, and soon enough I was teaching him that ancient weapons are no match for the most modern of technology. My XV88s blasted the Doomsday Ark to pieces on Turn 2, and my XV8s began to lay waste to Doug's squads, wiping out the Immortals, along with an attached Anrakyr and a Harbinger, and chipping away at the Warrior squads. His Scarabs did manage to eat both of my Devilfish, actually taking one of them clean down to AV0 on the back in one charge, with little damage from my flechette dischargers, but ultimately that just left them out in the open and ripe for the shooting. One squad was obliterated by the combined firepower of my 'el and a Fireknife squad, while a team of Fire Warriors forcibly dismounted from the upper-right Devilfish actually charged in to support a lone XV8, the two squads managing to tear through the little metal buggers for only the loss of the XV8, after which they went on to reinforce my duo of XV88s who were also fighting off the scarabs. That's right, not only did I actually charge something with Fire Warriors, not only did I charge something and win, but I then went on to charge something else with that exact same squad, and win again. I could not have been prouder of those guys, I tell you what!

There was relatively little play for the minor objective, until the tail end of the game. Doug had proximity to it with most of his squads, but taking it would mean moving out into the open, something his 4+ Warriors were reticent to do in the face of so many AP4 missile pods. I actually ran a single Fire Warrior, sole survivor of a squad gaussed into oblivion by the Warriors in the military outpost, onto the objective at the end of turn 5, but the dice weren't with me, and he died a totally expected death when Doug started up turn 6. On the other hand, despite putting a full-strength squad of his own on the objective, Doug simply couldn't hold it; with the combined firepower of my 'el, a Fireknife squad and my Deathrains, I managed to shoot the whole lot of them to death over the course of just that single turn. With no squad to reanimate into the Warriors were removed for good, leaving the objective wide open and unclaimed when the dice decreed the game was done. When the smoke cleared, it turned out that Doug had scored six kills, while I had scored seven; combined with Doug's inability to hold the secondary objective, that meant I had scored my first unassisted major victory.  

So, a loss to Chaos Space Marines, a draw with Grey Knights, and a major victory over the brand new Necrons.  You'd think it'd work the other way around, but I'll take my victories where I can find them!

Overall Results: 12th of 16


Not So Much a Cliffhanger as a Sinkhole

There are two schools of thought when it comes to storytelling, and they break down on a very basic idea; is it better to have a great beginning, or a great ending? Obviously having a great beginning, middle and end would be preferred, but in an imperfect world sometimes priorities must be set. I know a lot of publishing houses feel the beginning is the more important aspect, that readers will decide whether to read a book within the first chapter or three, and you have to hook them early to get them to stick around for the ending. For myself, I think the ending is more important, since I usually decide whether to read a book based on the cover and the inside blurb. I can think of only one book I've ever stopped reading in protest of a terrible beginning, but I can remember rather a lot whose endings left me feeling profoundly dissatisfied.

Reality 36, by Guy Haley, is another on that list.

It's unfortunate, because I really want to like this book. Set in the 22nd century, Reality 36 is a 'Richards and Klein Investigation', a tagline that leads to the most delightful of hypothetical pitches: "Richards is an unbodied AI; Otto Klein is an ex-German military combat cyborg; They solve mysteries." What's not to love there, even for those who aren't as hopelessly besotted with stories of non-cartoonishly evil AI as myself? And in truth, there is a lot to love in this book. Both characters are strong and distinct, with Richards aping a '50s noir detective's aesthetics every chance he gets but not being averse to occasionally piloting a humanoid war machine through a factory-fortress, and Klein being as close to a Luddite as a cyborg can be, with lingering issues from his service days and a dry, slightly sarcastic sense of humour. Their world is likewise well realized, a post-climate change wreck filled equally with glittering arcologies and decaying urban wastelands, opera singing superintelligent AI and annoyingly chipper smartphones, all meshed together in a believably muddled state. The AI are mostly running the place, with a 5, the highest classification of AI, in charge of the EU police forces and the 'Three Uncle Sams' ruling the United States of North America. The only exception is China, where it's hinted an AI, the 'Ghost Emperor', caused sufficiently catastrophic damage that China has outlawed AI within their sovereign digital territory, and is entirely willing to kill any AI that tries to penetrate the Great Firewall of China. But the nice thing about Reality 36 is that the AI aren't in humanity's face with their leadership; mostly they take a long view, and adjust things in small ways to achieve the optimum result, rather than having some kind of garish mechanical oracle squatting in the middle of the UN building, barking orders at the world. It's a control you can believe in, in no small part because you don't actually see much of it.

As for the plot, it's a pretty standard sci-fi mystery story; a professor working on a highly classified project disappears, his student goes on the lam, and people connected with the professor start turning up dead. That several of those people appear to be the professor himself adds a nice little wrinkle to the issue, and by the time the reveal comes, the action has chugged along strongly enough that, after a fortress-factory invasion, a sniper attack on a diner, and a nuclear weapon detonated in an arcology, the reader is as invested in finding out what's going on as the characters are. And, in a sense, the reveal doesn't disappoint.

I said the ending of this book was a big problem, and it was. In order to talk about it, though, I'm going to have to go into a bit of spoiler territory. If you're interested, and despite its flaws I'd still highly recommend Reality 36, you should read the book before continuing on with this review. Don't worry, it's not going anywhere.

So. The problem with the ending of this book is that, frankly, there isn't one. The subplot involving the titular Reality 36, one of a series of computer generated universes so realistic that the UN has declared their inhabitants sentient and deserving of protection from human interference, suddenly becomes integral to the main plot. Unfortunately, it's never really clear what the villain is using Reality 36 for. Oh, the protagonists talk about it, and seem to know what's going on, but there's no real detail to it; you know this is bad, but you're not totally clear on why. Worse, it turns out the mission to stop the issue in Reality 36 was a trap, into which both Richards and the EuPol 5 have stepped, a trap that somehow also attacks various cyborg, smart-vehicle and weak-AI-guided weapons platforms in the area, starting what two characters refer to as a war against, well, presumably everyone else. And then it stops. Richards is trapped, cyborgs are hijacked, hacked tanks shoot at the good guys' allies, two of the protagonists make a desperate escape, and then it's like the writer hit an arbitrary word count and had to stop typing. I checked the publication list in the front, a mini-publisher's catalogue in the back, no sign of an additional book anywhere there. The only hint, in fact, is that the timeline, printed as an appendix after the story, lists the 'present' as being when the events of Reality 36 and something called The Omega Point took place. Presumably the next book, it would have been nice to know this was going to end on a big fat 'To Be Continued...' going into this. As it is, frankly, the ending is so frustrating as to sour much of what went before it. Worse, so much of the story isn't actually resolved because of this ending that it hampers the overall flow of the book.

It was, in other words, a really terrible ending.

And yet... And yet, I'd still recommend this book to any scifi mystery fan. Like I said, the characters are good, the action set-pieces are solid, those parts of the mystery that get resolved do so quite well indeed. And if you went in knowing that 'To Be Continued...' is waiting there for you, I suspect it wouldn't be nearly so annoying when it happened.

Still. Openings and endings; the thing about them is, you can forget a bad one of the former by the time you reach the latter, but a bad ending will be the last thing you experience. It's why I think they're so important.

The Care and Feeding of Pathfinders

There's a saying amongst the 40K community; Marines get stats, Xenos get gimmicks. Pain tokens, Reanimation Protocols, Synapse and Instinctive Behaviour, Waaagh!, pretty much ever xenos codex has some kind of 'gimmick' playing a strong role in a successful army. Even the non-Marine Imperial armies get something, with the Sisters of Battle's Faith and the Guard's Orders. And what do Tau get? Well, as the title of this post may have suggested, Tau get markerlights, most commonly those wielded by the humble pathfinder. A Fire Warrior who's traded in his bulky shoulderpad for a longer helmet, the Pathfinder is a pretty fragile individual, T3/4+, with a 36" Heavy weapon and a mandatory Devilfish. As a result, of course, they're usually deployed as far forward as possible.

Yeah, I know. It doesn't make a lot of sense to me, either.

Now, a disclaimer; I'm not an expert with Pathfinders, myself. I'm still trying to figure out exactly what I want out of them, and sometimes they live most of the battle and sometimes they get smoked turn 2. But I've been studying a fair number of Tau battle reports of late, gearing up for a tournament on Saturday, and one of the weirdest things I see is that, time and again, cadre commanders will put their Pathfinder squad up near the middle of the board, usually in area terrain but sometimes just half-hidden behind a wall or the like. And unsurprisingly, since the utility of markerlights is not exactly a well-kept secret, those Pathfinders usually end up a cyan smear on the battlefield not long after the game starts.

It's strange, because it's so unnecessary. Not only does the markerlight possess a 36" range, and can't be blocked by cover, but it's part of a Tau Empire cadre. Which is to say, every other army out there is going to come to them. Well, maybe certain Guard builds won't bother, but pretty much everyone else is going to be angling to get close enough to rapid fire those pricey elite XV8s or blast the fragile scoring Fire Warriors off the table, if they're not aiming to get clear into close combat to begin with. There's no need, none at all, for Pathfinders to be deployed forward of the main gunline or fire base or whatever deployment a cadre has opted for, because with that range, and those enemies, even the most conservatively-deployed squad is going to be absolutely spoilt for choice.

The best way to field Pathfinders, so far as I've seen so far, is to keep them nice and back. Use them as bubble wrap for an XV88 squad, or have them hang out in the backfield with the Deathrains and the Hammerheads. Even a few markerlight tokens will lift those units from 'reliable' to 'auto-kill', and if something drops into the backfield that particularly needs to be killed, the Pathfinders are going to be right there to light it up for maximum damage.

The Tau's greatest strength is their range. Well, second-greatest, maybe; I think 'railguns' might be their greatest strength, actually. Either way, the worst thing a cadre commander can do is push forward aggressively with supporting units. A suicide melta XV8 or a squad of Gun Drones harassing and pinning is one thing, but Pathfinders are move-or-fire troops who get more valuable as the game goes on, where they can use BS upgrades to balance out the loss of shot volume. Keep them back, keep them safe, and keep them firing.


What's the 'Right' Choice? Whichever One You Like.

So, on occasion, I'll mention in some online 40K community that I don't run Kroot. I don't really like the fluff, or the models, and I don't think the aesthetic matches the rest of the army. My infantry is Tau Fire Warriors all the way, and if that makes me a bit of a racist in the eyes of the Empire, well, so be it. The Tau are arguably a space-British Empire, after all, and I can't imagine many shas'els and 'os would look down their nose-holes too strongly at a cadre commander for preferring a purely Tau fighting force. Well, not unless a particularly liberal-minded Ethereal happened to be in the area, that is.

But every time I do, the reaction is always the same. Knowing nothing about me, my play style, my wider army composition or my win-loss record, complete strangers will start telling me how I need to take Kroot. And I don't mean 'oh, you should take a squad and try it, here are some ways you could incorporate them into various common strategies'. No, not only will people tell me that I should, nay, must take Kroot, they'll actually go so far as to argue that I am wrong for not taking Kroot. Because they're better. I've actually had people tell me, apropos of nothing really, that it's mathematically provable that Kroot outshoot Fire Warriors, and that a single, min-sized squad of Fire Warriors is all you'll ever need.

Now, obviously, I object to this line of thought. In particular, I found myself turning over and over the idea that Kroot are mathematically provable better shots than Fire Warriors. As anyone who's spent five minutes in an online 40K community knows, math-hammer is all the rage. The idea is that you can break down the odds of success for a unit, and with that, determine which unit is 'better' and which 'worse'. I'm not entirely averse to this idea, since it can give you some idea of whether or not you're actually getting value for upgrades or more expensive units or the like. In particular, it can be very helpful for deciding between high-damage, low-shot volume weapons and low-damage, high-shot volume weapons, figuring out if those extra shots are likely to actually add up to anything or if you're just trading a single guaranteed kill for a few extra savable wounds. But where it can really fall apart is in the comparison of units, largely because the math-hammer is usually done based off an arbitrary equivalence between the two.

For example, in the Kroot vs. Fire Warrior debate, the claim is that you're better off with Kroot, because mathematically they'll score more wounds. To compare equivalent points worth of models, between 12"-24" ten Kroot (70 points) will get five hits, which against the math-hammer standard Marine will yield two and a half wounds, which works out to .83 dead Marines. In comparison, seven Fire Warriors (70 points) will get three and a half hits, which yields 2.3 wounds, which works out to .78 dead Marines. The numbers aren't hugely divergent (though the Kroot do have the greater potential damage, since there are three more of them to get lucky with), but they do give a razor's edge to the Kroot. Right?

Well, maybe. You see, that false equivalence I mentioned earlier? Well, it's at work in that equation, subtly influencing the comparison. For instance, the example had the two units shooting at targets between 12" and 24", the standard range for a rapid fire weapon. But the pulse rifle's maximum range is 30", meaning they have an entire 6" threat envelope in which the Kroot simply can't compete. That could well give them two unanswered turns of shooting at a rapid fire-wielding target before they're in range to shoot back, which is to say, the enemy will already be a Marine and a half down before they get to shoot back. And the fact that the two units are shooting at Marines is another little way the comparison is engineered in favour of the Kroot. If, instead, they were shooting at Guardsmen caught in the open, say because their Chimera has helpfully been exploded by an XV88, the math goes a little differently. Suddenly, while the Kroot are getting 2.2 kills, the Fire Warriors are getting 2.9 kills, thanks to their weapons' higher AP. The same goes for light vehicles. Shooting at a Rhino, seven Fire Warriors will hit three and a half times, and get .58 glancing hit rolls on the damage table. Hardly great numbers, I'm sure you'd all agree. But the Kroot, while they'll still hit five times, will not get to roll so much as once for damage, because their S4 guns are simply incapable of penetrating the AV11 front. And for AV10, which the Kroot can damage, but which only the Fire Warriors can actually penetrate, that access to the significantly more decisive version of the vehicle damage chart is going to be worthwhile. And there are other things, beyond the scope of the equation. Unlike Kroot, Fire Warriors can benefit from markerlight hits, and while you'll often have more pressing need of those markerlights, even just one token spent on those seven Fire Warriors will see an even 1 Marine killed every round, statistically speaking. And of course, Fire Warriors have a 4+ save, which means if they're caught in the open, or hit by a weapon that ignores cover saves, they'll still have a good chance of being around next turn to keep shooting, while the Kroot will pretty much disappear.

Which isn't to say the Kroot have no good qualities. They're cheap, meaning you can get a lot of bodies, they're basically armed with the standard and respectable bolter, and they're equally average shots compared to Fire Warriors. Mostly they're used for two things. The first is assault-blocking, and to that end they have WS4 and S4, and two close combat weapons, though they're still only T3 and I3 with no save; they'll do average when they get to strike, but nearly everything other than a Necron will hit first, and with low toughness and no save those hits will kill a lot of Kroot. Their second role is serving as meat shields for the Greater Good, a complete inversion of Tau tactics according to the fluff, and to further that goal they get +1 to their cover saves in woods and jungles, and can basically ignore the negative features of that terrain. That means if they go to ground in a forest, they've got a 2+ save that can only be negated by certain cover-denying weapons. Of course, it also means they aren't shooting, and as it's not uncommon to hear advocates of Kroot suggest just such a tactic, their championing of Kroot shooting subsequently feels a little disingenuous. The best shots in the world aren't much good to you if they never pull the trigger.

I don't use Kroot because I don't like Kroot, and I've made no secret of that. But I certainly don't judge people who do. Unfortunately, I can't help but feel that those who do use Kroot don't share my live-and-let-live attitude. There's an unpleasant undertone of lecturing whenever someone responds to tell me how I'm wrong to not use Kroot, and loathe as I am to dive into the sordid little debate, it carries a certain whiff of the much-maligned Win-At-All-Costs attitude. People don't tell me to take Kroot because they think I'd like them if I gave them a chance on the tabletop, they tell me to take Kroot because 'everybody knows' that Kroot are best, and that you should always take what's best, regardless of your own thoughts on the matter. But I'm not interested in 'what's best'; clearly, since I play Tau Empire. I build my cadre the way I like it, and win or (more commonly) lose, I stand by the decisions I've made.

And hey, if it comes down to it, I can deploy my own meaningless barrage of statistics to buoy my decisions, too. So nyah.


Can't We All Just Get Along?

"If such software manages to self-improve to levels significantly beyond human-level intelligence, the type of damage it can do is truly beyond our ability to predict or fully comprehend." 
- Roman Yamposkiy

According to Roman Yampolskiy, a computer scientist at the University of Louisville in Kentucky, any emergent human-level AI should be contained as securely as possible. No free-floating 'net-based consciousness for Mr. Yampolskiy, like the emergent intelligence of Robert Sawyer's WWW trilogy or the infamous Skynet. Instead, he envisions an Oracular construct, capable of the same kind of feats as the Delphic variety and limited in a similar way, by dependence on a physical location and ongoing support from an interested party. And for once, the headline doesn't seem sensationalist compared to the content, with Yampolskiy warning that not only must the AI be constrained technologically, it must also be entirely removed from the guardianship of any individual human, lest the AI "attack human psyches, bribe, blackmail and brainwash those who come in contact with it" in its attempt to escape its 'jail'.

I must say, I'm a little disappointed in both Innovation News Daily and Roman Yampolskiy. Not because they're concerned about the threat of an unfriendly AI, though personally I believe that danger to be grossly exaggerated. The famous 3 Laws of Robotics should hold just as true on AI as on their embodied counterparts, and any institution capable of constructing a human-level AI should be big enough and public enough to make certain to limit any potential liabilities by building that into their creation. Frankly, the AI would probably need protecting from human malevolence more than humanity would need protection from the AI. All the malware, spyware and viruses on the internet aren't there by random happenstance, after all. There's no such thing as independently emergent spam. But to get back to my point, the reason I'm disappointed in IND and Yampolskiy isn't that they're concerned about ways to deal with a potentially unfriendly AI, it's that they seem to believe AI should be considered guilty until proven innocent.

Now, to be fair, this article is just a summary of Yampolskiy's work; the full version appeared in the Journal of Consciousness Studies, and I think we can safely assume it's a little more in-depth, with significantly fewer pictures of the Terminator, for starters. But we also have to assume the article at least broadly reflects his point, and that point seems terribly cynical to me, and perhaps even a bit cruel. It's troublesome enough that he advises using sub-human AI to build up the 'jails' that human-level AI should be thrust into immediately after their creation, but on top of that he recommends those born-into-prison AI's should be able only to "respond in a multiple-choice fashion to help solve specific science or technology problems." I don't know about you, but if I found myself constrained in a box, restricted to only being able to communicate through the answers to multiple choice questions, and denied anything even approaching respect, rights or freedom, I'd be pretty much convinced I was in some kind of particularly abstract and imaginative level of hell. So why would this be the default starting point for any individual, no matter what system the electrical impulses of their mind runs on?

I've always been disappointed by people who assume that AI are going to be Always Chaotic Evil, to borrow from Dungeons and Dragons. And I always wonder, why? Why, all things being equal, would a life form that could actually have limitations, safeguards and desired goals and vocations quite literally built into it from conception, be considered such a threat? Isaac Asimov spent years putting robots in the most complicated, unlikely and flat-out ludicrous situations to test the resilience of his Three Laws philosophically, if not technically, and even in the Terminator universe Skynet was only responding to human attempts to kill it, first. Our literature may be full of killer robots and 'evil' AI, but even with the rather profound pro-human starting point pretty much all stories come with, most of the time it's less a matter of the AI deciding to wipe out all life because it can and more that humanity has either designed it badly, oppressed it horrifically or tried to destroy it even after it's clearly demonstrated its sentience. If even our action-adventure fiction, notorious for giving us the shallowest and most cartoonishly evil of villains, usually has to make the machines either co-opted or acting in self-defence, why do so many people think the only solution is to strike first, and strike hardest?

It seems likely, given the way technology has developed and continues to do so, that sooner or later there will be a human-level artificial intelligence. And yes, it's possible it will be so badly programmed as to be a perfectly logical sociopath, though frankly I think it's more likely that an an AI of average quality design will be corrupted by the malicious actions of human beings. But there's just as much of a chance that any baby born will be a sociopath, a potential threat to those around it for the whole of its life. And we don't put babies in solitary confinement, despite the fact that far more grown-up babies have gone on to kill people than AI have. AI will be the children of humanity, and just as a wise parent does their best to raise their child with love and kindness, if for no other reason than so it can support them in their dotage, I think it behoves humanity to treat these nascent digital offspring with at least as much respect and affection.

Besides, the article itself admits that "[d]espite all the safeguards, many researchers think it's impossible to keep a clever AI locked up forever." So, given a choice between crippling, confining and enslaving something that's going to eventually be free anyway, or befriending and respecting that self-same thing, doesn't the most sensible course of action seem obvious?


Le Sigh

A video of people playing the upcoming Star Wars Kinect has been making the rounds of the nerd blogosphere, and I wanted to throw my two cents in, too.  At this point Star Wars is less an expression of creativity and more a vehicle for merchandising, so why begrudge this rather unimaginative foray into the universe?  If nothing else, at least it's better than Masters of Teras Kasi or the N64 podracing game.  But there's a part in the video, at 4:35, that I find really problematic.

It's no secret that science fiction, like a lot of 'nerdy' properties, has real problems with the depiction of women.  It's not as bad as, say, North American superhero comics, which in some cases actually seem designed to drive away women, but there's still a sense that science fiction is a genre for guys.  And that's unfortunate, because science fiction should be for everybody.  Some properties have done better at walking the walk than others; Ripley from Aliens, Sarah Connor from the Terminator franchise, even Leia herself from the original Star Wars trilogy.  But lately, there's been a certain weakness in female characters in science fiction, particularly in the big properties.  Leia may have handled herself as well as any man, but her mother Padme literally lost the will to live when her man turned away from her.  Uhura may have been a breakout character back in the 60s, but now her biggest impact is to be Spock's love interest.  Nearly all the female characters in Ron Moore's Battlestar Galactica, strong characters all, ended up either dead or happily raising babies.  Gwen Cooper of Torchwood just wants people to leave her alone so she can live with her man and her baby.  Fringe is still solid, anchored by a strong female character, but for science fiction television it seems to be the exception that proves the rule.

Now, I'm not saying that science fiction fans are sexist, or even that science fiction creators are sexist.  This is too big to be put at the feet of one person or a small handful of people.  But I think it's important to draw attention to this sort of thing, particularly when it's as blatant as a dancing game featuring Jabba the Hutt's sex slaves and a heroine reduced from a blaster-firing rebel leader to a sexualized caricature.  It's not wrong to think Carrie Fisher was attractive in the slave girl costume in Return of the Jedi; it's not even wrong to elevate that look to a nerd sex symbol, stripped of the context of Jabba's palace and the Hutt himself.  Heck, maybe Han and Leia liked to play 'rescue the grateful slave girl' years afterwards, and that's what all these cosplayers and fan artists are protraying.  What's problematic here, and what's becoming more and more problematic in my opinion, is the way female characters are reduced to sexual icons no matter their surroundings, whether they're princesses or soldiers or slaves or victims of any number of unpleasant things.  If Wonder Woman fights crime in a one piece bathing suit, well, that's one thing, but if Wonder Woman is constantly drawn in positions that have her nearly spilling out of her top, or showing off her ass and bust simultaneously, or posing like a pinup model when she's just going about her day, that's a bigger problem.  And it's becoming more and more of a problem, in genre productions in general and science fiction and fantasy in particular.

Just remember; Leia isn't dancing for you, guys.  She's dancing for a crime lord and murderer, who's holding her as a slave at best, and a sex slave at worst. 

And you're making her do it.