2014/09/01

Playing With Fantasy I

Fantasy thoughts (the first one titled this was almost a random-thoughts post, though not quite). Most of them are about RPG-fantasy. Numbered the title "I" because this is the first fantasy-thoughts one of this name, but probably won't be the only one.
  • It is quite a slog to find things in fantasy that aren't knockoffs/"uncredited homages" (to coin a euphemism). Obviously the whole of fantasy games, for example, is a series of footnotes to Tolkien, Leiber, Howard, and Moorcock. But there's also more recent "borrowings". Like, you know how elven equipment in the Elder Scrolls games has a bird-motif going on? Yeah, well, probably makes more sense when you know that the elves in Warhammer Fantasy worship a phoenix-god. Not a dragon, like the elves in Elder Scrolls. Likewise Talos is Sigmar, full-stop—except Sigmar's a boss and Tiber Septim was an a-hole.

    Frostmourne in Warcraft is probably Widowmaker, the sword of Khaela Mensha Khaine the Bloody-Handed God, in Warhammer; it whispers its temptations to all the descendents of Aenarion the same way Frostmourne whispers its to prospective hosts for the Lich-King, in both cases trying to corrupt their impulse to protect their people. Of course, Khaine is, in fact, the god of war, with dual aspects as protector and destroyer—the high elves worship him just like the dark elves do, but only before battle (his worship is illegal in peacetime)—so that makes a lot more sense.

    Or the Dwemer? Yeah, they're the dwarves from RuneQuest, the Mostali, except the Dwemer aren't cannibals and the Mostali aren't atheists (and never tried to make their own god). And the Bosmer, I'm convinced, are Dark Sun halflings; look at them in Oblivion and tell me they're not halflings. Cannibal, jungle-dwelling halflings.
  • In my own D&D setting, I realized, an easy way to set stuff apart from "cliche" (or more accurately, to spruce up formula and make it fresh and interesting again), is to ignore two big stereotypes. One, my dwarves don't use axes. Nope, hammers and picks. And two, my elves are not primarily archers, only using bows as much as humans do. Along with spears (which I recommend for druids, since it's got the highest damage-rating of any weapon they're allowed), their main weapons are battle-axes, hand-axes, throwing axes, and halberds.

    Elvish light cavalry (which rides deer) is basically jinetes with throwing-axes instead of javelins, like mounted Franks. I have a sourcebook with stats for reindeer, and the "warbeast" template from Monster Manual II; this, with a few modifications, gives you a good deer for the elves to ride (my elves normally don't get above 133 pounds, while a medium load for a quadruped with Strength 16 is 230). The dwarves, meanwhile, ride rams, for which I use a slight modification of boar stats (no Ferocity, slower speed, but move at the same slow rate no matter how much they carry—same as dwarves themselves).

    I also have both goblins and hobgoblins riding worgs (which probably looks ridiculous in the latter case, but a Medium quadruped with Strength 17 is only carrying a Medium load up through 260 pounds!). Meanwhile, the orcs (who are giants now, not humanoids, despite being Medium-sized—they're a branch of ogres, remember) are riding "warbeast" boars; their ogre cousins ride "bison", which are called buffalo in the places where they're actually found. I readily admit that the idea of orcs on big boars is partly inspired by the Moblins in Twilight Princess; rob from the rich, I always say.
  • Another idea, which is also used by Warcraft, is my dwarves use guns (which are martial weapons for them, not exotic). I don't find mention of them in the SRD, but it's not like WotC can copyright flintlocks. The range-increments listed for them in the DMG are way too long; they give a maximum effective range for muskets of 1500 feet (given ten range-increments for projectile weapons), and for pistols, of 500 feet. Try, respectively, 300 feet (range increment 30 feet—no better than a javelin) and 150 feet (15 foot increment)—muzzle-loaders are crap. Except they do at least as much damage as heavy crossbows and only take a standard action to reload, instead of a full-round one.

    Meanwhile, there's no range-increment listed for the hand-axe, which would come as a surprise to every bored woodsman in history—most of whom probably didn't have the requisite attack bonuses to overcome the penalty for throwing a weapon that hasn't got a listed range-increment. It should have a 10-foot increment, like throwing an ordinary spear. Also, the throwing-axe's increment is too short; the longest ever tomahawk throw (at least as recorded by the International Knife-throwers' Hall of Fame), which we can treat as maximum range, was 137 feet. Rounding that to the nearest 5-foot "square", then dividing by five (because you get five range-increments with thrown weapons), gives a range-increment of 27 feet, which we'll round to 25. That's comparable to the javelins ordinary jinetes would be throwing.
  • The problem, I think, with assuming that fantasy has to be about lamenting what's been lost by modern progress, and acknowledging the good in the Ancien Regime, is that actually, nothing that's remotely preferable about "modern progress" isn't medieval—including the very phrase "modern progress", something of a buzzword among the people who built Chartres cathedral, apparently.

    While Tolkien himself is exempt from the charge, the fact is that most of the Romantics, who originated that understanding, were themselves Liberals; they applied Noble Savage stereotypes to past eras much as their contemporaries applied them to Indians. But it mostly made them feel better about themselves while guillotining aristos and mass-relocating Indians, rather than actually curtailing the guillotining and mass-relocating. Besides, again, "noble savage" is a characterization that absolutely does not apply to the Middle Ages, which, again, had every good thing about modernity except some tech (all of which was made possible by disregarding Renaissance fetishisms in the sciences).

    There is no actual rule that says fantasy has to be in the tradition of Romanticism, or at least not orthodox Romanticism. There is much to be said for the Chesterton school, where the person most concerned with progress discovers he's "much the most medieval person present". There's also much to be said for the Pernoud view that everything bad about either modernity or the Ancien Regime is directly traceable to Classicism, which was, after all, fetishizing the views and habits of a bunch of misogynist bulimic slave-owning pederasts in togas and sandals.
  • I had said that "Talos" was an a-hole, but really, no, only Tiber Septim was. Talos is not Tiber Septim—he's Tiber Septim, Ysmir Wulfharth the Ash-King, and Zurin Arctus, Tiber Septim's battle-mage. The three of them together are an "enantiomorph", which I think is meant to mean "mirror form", because each is a Shezarrine—an avatar of Lorkhan the Doom-drum. Together, the three of them combined to return Lorkhan to the Aedra. "Talos" does not exist. He's just Lorkhan. I had suspected as much, but it's nice to get canonical confirmation. (Also, it's interesting to me that Shor welcomes Dragonborn, who are ordinarily not Shezarrines, when they're not Tiber Septim or Wulfharth—they're avatars of Akatosh/Auri-El, Shor's mortal enemy. Unless, of course, you subscribe to the theory that, just as Akatosh/Auri-El is an emanation from Anu, Lorkhan/Shor/Shezarr is an emanation from Akatosh/Auri-El, and their "enmity" is really some ritual reality rather than a relationship mortals would understand.)

    Oh, and the Thalmor excluding Talos from the pantheon? Yeah, they're not doing it because they're racists. They're doing it because men are Lorkhanic beings, and removing Talos again will remove Lorkhan's influence from Mundus. That, in turn, will supposedly allow the Thalmor to follow Auri-El into Aetherius (to the stars/spirit-world, which are the same thing in the Elder Scroll setting), undoing the Convention trapping the Ehlnofey in Mundus. Provided, of course, that they destroy all the Towers or deactivate their foundation-stones—and the Amulet of Kings and Heart of Lorkhan are gone, as was the foundation of Crystal-Like Law when the Daedra destroyed it. Falinesti was probably deactivated when its trees stopped walking. The only ones left are the Throat of the World and the Adamantine Tower, and the latter is really close to Thalmor-occupied territory.
  • There's a scene in one of the Dragon Age games where a character gets mad at the player for asking what other races are like, because they're made up of individuals and can't be generalized about. In, again, a Dragon Age game—AKA "post-colonial oppression-narrative identity politics, the RPG", by and for Social Justice Warriors who do nothing but generalize about "People of Color" (because all people with brown skin have identical experiences and interests). Ritualistic obeisance in the direction of individualism doesn't change the fact the entire rest of the enterprise is collectivist race-Marxism.

    It's like Calvinists talking about the mercy of God, when the whole rest of their theology makes God a monster who damns people at random for no reason—they still have to pretend he's merciful, because they're a heresy of Christianity, and Christianity is all about the mercy of God (never mind that that "mercy", to actually be a thing, sorta requires a very different theology, soteriology, and moral anthropology from that in Calvinism). In the same way, the post-colonial race-Marxists at BioWare are adherents of a heresy from within Liberalism, so they have to kowtow in the direction of the little fetishes of Liberalism even though the whole rest of their worldview is as illiberal as any despotism you care to name.
  • One setting detail I'm using in my campaign is that, instead of coins, the people use trade-beads. Humans use leaded glass beads and cranberry-glass, AKA ruby glass, which correspond in value to copper and silver pieces, respectively. Strings of beads weigh less, though (the numbers say over 620 to the pound; I round it off to 600/lb, which is 1/12 the weight of coins). Dwarves make beads from the same volcanic glass they make all their equipment out of, and their beads are worth as much as platinum pieces.

    Elf beads, worth as much as gold, are made from what looks like white leaded glass (I imagine a careless merchant might mistake it for the copper-piece equivalent—which, it occurs to me, would probably happen to platinum coins in a standard setting, being mistaken for silver). But the elf-beads glow faintly greenish in sunlight. It's called "vaseline glass", on Earth, because a long time ago Vaseline was green; we also call it "uranium glass", since that's what's in it. If people in my campaign world had blacklights they'd be able to make the elf beads glow. (No, it's not radioactive. The only risk with uranium glass—as also with uranium-glazed Fiestaware—is heavy-metal poisoning if it leaches into a beverage stored in a vessel made from it. It's only about as dangerous as leaded glass.)

    The reason I assign the basic leaded-glass trade-bead the value of copper is that wampum was roughly comparable to Dutch copper coins; one white bead was worth a duit (pronounced "dute"). My calculations make my beads significantly heavier than wampum, though (heavy-metal colloid glass is a lot denser than shell). The cranberry-glass beads, meanwhile, are the equivalent of silver, and the medium normal people do business in, because I dislike D&D thinking (as the SRD apparently does) that "the most common coin is the gold piece". In much of medieval Europe, the only coins were silver pennies and some copper subdivisions like farthings (1/4 penny), with everything bigger than the penny being a "unit of account" that didn't really exist.
  • I would dearly love to write Cosmic Horror fantasy in the Lovecraft Circle vein, but the trouble is, I don't believe in it. From the nihilist cosmology down to the merest details, I simply can't make myself feel it, so I can't write it. Fundamentally Lovecraft's hangups about tentacles and fungus are as silly and provincial, his own private neuroses, as his hangups about interracial dating. I just can't feel it; to me, a snake is about as hideous (Howard's favorite adjective for them) as a pigeon—which is just the other branch of the diapsids from snakes, the same one as crocodiles. Ironically, I think a part of it is that a great deal is known in science that either wasn't known in Lovecraft's day or that Lovecraft didn't bother to learn. E.g., relativity—from which Lovecraft tried to derive all manner of horrors—actually says that the cosmos is "isometric", which basically means it looks the same in every direction. That's kinda the opposite of what Lovecraft tries to get from it.

    Fundamentally, that the world is not expressly designed just to cater to my needs and desires seems, to me, no more equivalent to its being a horrendous monstrosity birthed by a malevolent blind idiot, than the fact other people do not exist just to validate and applaud me means they are bigots who hate me. The former seems little different from the latter, and both are at best adolescent posturing, if not full-blown psychotic paranoia. (Also narcissistic; I have said before that Lovecraft actually caters to the anthropocentric prejudices of his audience.) I do have creepy stuff in my fantasy, but it's the creepiness of "Fuan no Tane" or, really, any Native American mythology you care to become acquainted with (why is Death "a thin bluish creature" in Navajo myth?); it's not nihilism that originates the fear, but the creepiness of having walked by an open window on a dark night, and not daring to look out. I don't need to believe any Nietzschean-Dionysian nihilist cosmology to be discomfited by people looking in my window at night.

    This, it occurs to me, is the opposite of the Lovecraft method, and is the Chesterton method, as described in Heretics. "For a man walking down a lane at night can see the conspicuous fact that as long as nature keeps to her own course, she has no power with us at all. As long as a tree is a tree, it is a top-heavy monster with a hundred arms, a thousand tongues, and only one leg. But so long as a tree is a tree, it does not frighten us at all. It begins to be something alien, to be something strange, only when it looks like ourselves. When a tree really looks like a man our knees knock under us."
  • I also had some trouble getting that elvish script I came up with into font form. So, since I'm trying to not modify D&D except when I have to, in my campaign setting, my elves use the 3rd Edition version of Espruar, my dwarves use the 4th Edition dwarf writing, my gnomes use the Twilight Princess version of Hylian. No, they don't actually give their letters the same values as in English; X is used for "lh" in Elvish and "sh" in Dwarfish, for example.

    For human writing, I at first considered using the thing they use for Common in Eberron, but, like everything else in Eberron, it's ugly and not at all jibing with anything like my humans, let alone theirs. I kept trying to find something that looked like "normal human writing", from the point of view of someone who reads a Sinaitic-derived alphabet. I found one—ironically made by people for whom it probably gives an "exotic", "fantasy" feeling, because it's from a Final Fantasy game.

    Give me two cases that aren't just resizings, of course, and I'm going to declare the uppercase one to be the older, monumental one and the lowercase to be the younger cursive one.

2014/08/16

Tenuous Stuff from Which the World Was Made II

Worldbuilding thoughts, more or less. Thoughts about stuff directly or indirectly related to worldbuilding, certainly.
  • Back in February of this year, we actually passed the "break-even" point in fusion. Admittedly, only by 1%. Still: this is very important. From "how to pass that point at all" to "how to get far enough past that point to actually be useful" is a much smaller step than the one between "not past the break-even point" and "actually past it". Of course, everyone who wants fusion-power ought to be asked "How about just thorium-fueled fission power, for now?". And everyone who points out "fusion has been twenty years away for sixty years"—same question. If you think (possibly correctly) that fusion is unrealistic for the near future, why don't you advocate something useful? (Answer: because raining on others' parade is more ego-gratifying than being constructive.)

    Even uranium fission is a better solution than sitting around whining about the lack of fusion power—and much better, even in terms of radiation, than continuing to use coal-power, which is the main thing our societies actually use when they aren't using fission. But greens and their opponents are united in their lack of concern for how people actually live—mostly because they are also, almost to a man, united in being (upper-)middle-class Westerners who can take "we will have relatively cheap electricity" for granted. How to get electrical power, and the amenities it provides (which include sanitation and medical care along with luxuries) is not immediately their problem, so they feel free to yammer endlessly about the theory of it, without actually bothering about the practical aspects.
  • I was thinking, there is a period in Korean history called the "North and South Kingdoms Era", or Nambukgukshidae (the hanja are 南北國時代); it's from 698 AD to 926 AD. It's bracketed on either side by Three Kingdoms Eras, the later of which is called the Later Three Kingdoms (don't worry, in Korean "Later Three Kingdoms" is distinguished from "later Three Kingdoms", as in the late part of the era just called "Three Kingdoms", by more than just a capital L).

    That fact leads me to suspect that future historians, assuming that Korea does not stay divided forever (and I wouldn't put money on the North getting one more Dear Leader into office), will probably consider the current era of Korean history to be a Later North and South Kingdoms Era. Don't worry about the "kingdom" part; the hanzi "guo", 國, which is simplified to 国 in Japan, is also used in the names of republics; its basic meaning is "state" or "domain", without specifying how they're governed.

    The hanja for "Later North and South Kingdoms Era" would be 後南北國時代; it's pronounced Hunambukgukshidae.
  • In making zled laterality (handedness) "task dependent", where they use one hand to write and a different one to eat, apparently I've, quite by accident, put their laterality on the same basis as that of dogs (and perhaps cats and bears). You may have heard that male dogs are left-pawed and females right-pawed, and that cats are either right-pawed or have the same division as dogs, but there's apparently only two research papers that found laterality in dogs to be sex-linked, and one of them primarily found it when performing the "shake hands" trick, less when removing something stuck to the snout or an object over a piece of food. And I've been finding several other studies that not only challenge the "sex-linked laterality" hypothesis, but that show some evidence dogs show "handedness" mostly with new tasks, becoming ambidextrous as the task becomes more familiar (not sure how that handedness breaks down, though presumably not by sex, since the papers describing it also challenge the idea of sex-based handedness in dogs). There's also a paper I found that suggests lateralization in dogs is linked to immune function, with left-handed dogs having more lymphocytes and fewer granulocytes than right-handed ones (not sure whose immune system that means is better). Also? Apparently ambidextrous dogs are more likely to be afraid of loud noises.
  • Beans and corn, of course, are the staple crops of the New World, the ones that made all but one of the hemisphere's civilizations possible (some of the Mound Builders were agriculturists but hadn't domesticated corn—they grew squash instead). That's a pattern you get worldwide: grains and legumes, in combination, are the Agricultural Revolution, because the two in combination are complete protein. (For humans—try to keep dogs on that diet and I hope they use you as a protein supplement.)

    In Rome it was lentils and wheat; in medieval Europe it was peas and wheat. In Southeast Asia, Japan, Korea, and southern China, it's rice and soybeans—but in northern China, it's actually wheat and millet, and soybeans. (Actually in Japan and I do believe Korea millet was grown along with rice, since the farmers were not allowed to keep much of their rice, and lived on millet instead.)

    I'm not sure what the African legume was, other than peanuts; their big grains seem to be wheat and rice. In the Near East the legume seems to be chickpeas (maybe those are big in Africa too—other than North Africa, I mean?) and lentils, and they eat wheat and rice. In India the legumes are good ol' peas and lentils, plus mung beans and kin, and the grains are wheat and rice. Barley, come to think of it, probably shows up in India and everywhere west of it; I'm not sure about in Africa, though.
  • Getting rid of zledo having bayonets on their lasers, since they also use swords, and they can buttstroke just fine (and by "just fine" I mean "to a pulp"—imagine being pistol-whipped by a jaguar). I think they might also use the lasers to parry with when swordfighting, much like using a belaying pin in one hand and a cutlass in the other; while their weirdly designed sword-blades can probably actually cut the lasers if they hit just right (they aren't using metal anymore), it would have to hit just right. You parry with a (metal) sword, and if the other guy hits that just right he can snap your blade.

    Incidentally, I'm still torn whether zled swords should just be made of ultra-weird nano-engineered material, or actually have a small power-supply artificially strengthening their molecular bonds, like a sword made of General Products hull. On the one hand, you could probably get really funky properties from a substance whose every grain you brush into place with nano-bots; on the other, General Products hull sword! Actually it occurs to me I've hinted at something that kinda splits the difference—as I have it now it seems their swords aren't ordinarily powered, but instead of grinding or honing them to sharpen them, they do it electronically, re-aligning the structure of the blade and cutting edge to its optimal configuration.
  • Apparently Whorf, as in "Sapir-", came up with his theory based on Hopi lacking grammatical tense—that they have "no words, grammatical forms, construction or expressions that refer directly to what we call 'time.'"—which, he said, meant the Hopi have a "timeless" existence, whereas Westerners are obsessed with times and dates and slaves to the clock. There are two issues with that. The first, and probably more important, is that Hopi does have grammatical tense. The second, and perhaps illustrative of how linguists are not anthropologists, is, the Hopi lifestyle is absolutely rigidly determined by time, with days and seasons (maybe months, too) extraordinarily important in every aspect of how they conduct their affairs.

    Right, Professor Whorf, a people who have an annual rain dance at the same time every year—plainly, they have no way of referring directly to "time". A subsistence-agriculturist society is blissfully unconcerned with things like "seasons". A people almost all of whose ritual life takes place at certain prescribed times of day, nope, they plainly get by without having words for "time". I mean, they're not allowed to talk about their creation-story except in winter (a taboo they imparted to the Navajo, along with large portions of the mythology in question), but no, the season of the year has nothing to do with "what we call 'time.'". Nothing whatsoever, not a single, solitary thing!
  • I made an interesting discovery while researching how a species with a tapetum lucidum does the close-in tasks we associate with "intelligence". Tapeta lucida, after all, cause scattering of light, which blurs images—it's a bit like having cataracts. I had had zledo go with the method used by some crepuscular birds (I want to say nightjars?), of only having tapetum lucidum in half the eye—but in reverse, since zledo would have to see what's in their hands, under their eyes, in detail, while crepuscular birds have to deal with well-lit sky and poorly lit ground (think sunset, the earth is black while the sky is still light).

    But that's a weird thing to evolve (it seems like they might as well just not have a tapetum lucidum at all), but then I found out, sharks have a tapetum lucidum that is "occlusible", which is usually used to refer to the teeth fitting together in the mouth but here means "can be hidden" (it apparently means "closing", of eyes, as well). See, interspersed with the shiny crystals that make up their tapetum lucidum, a shark has melanocytes—pigmented cells. When the light is good, the melanocytes expand, blocking the tapetum lucidum and giving the shark good detail vision (your guess is as good as mine why they have it, since their way of investigating the world is "put everything in your mouth", not "look at it very carefully"). I think it's a bit like the various chromatophores in chameleon skin, but a lot simpler.

    I imagine that occluding the tapetum requires a certain amount of time in good light, so zledo wouldn't be blinded by bright flashes. On the other hand, going indoors after being outside in the dark might make their vision crummy for a few seconds (chameleons take about 30 seconds to change—octopuses, on the other hand, seem to only take 2-10 seconds), in terms of fine detail. (Also, the pigment they use for it isn't melanin, but anthocyanidin—the chromatophores in question presumably being "anthocyanidocytes".)
  • Incidentally, it's not true that chameleons don't use their color-change for camouflage. While, indeed, most chameleons do actually use the ability for social signaling—"living mood-rings" is the phrase that's bandied about—at least one kind of dwarf chameleon, "Smith's", does.
  • Zled markings, being made of anthocyanidin (the base color of their fur is structural; the only pigment present in their manes, though, is also anthocyanidin, while the manes ordinarily don't have structural coloring), are sometimes blue and sometimes red. It's differentiated by the pH of the anthocyanidocytes in the follicle, blue if the pH is 7 to 8 and red if it's 3 or less (and purple if it's 6-7, and blue-green if it's 8 to 10). Different ethnicities ordinarily have either red or blue anthocyanidocytes and thus markings—something like the "oily" or "crumbly" earwax genes present in human ethnicities. I think the genes aren't co-dominant, so a given individual would get one or the other; purple and blue-green markings, thus, would probably only be due to mutations or pathological conditions.

    Fur color, meanwhile, which is structural (like the blueness of jays), I think is co-dominant, so you might get pale-green children resulting from green and yellow parents (or vice-versa), or yellow children from green and orange parents. I think instead of purple children from blue and orange parents, you'd get green (since it's not a matter of mixing pigments, but of the structures in their hairs being midway in size between the two wavelengths). You'd also probably get the children of intermarriages sometimes having the "wrong" color, e.g. the blue and green people usually have blue markings, while the orange and yellow people usually have red, but they might get markings that don't match their fur-color. (The yellow-orange people don't have markings, except on ear- and tail-tips—which are blue—so I think their intermarriages sometimes result in children with faded markings, that might be the "wrong" color.)

2014/07/18

Blood and Treasure II

Although the first one with this title was slightly different, it really is the best name for a mixed xenobiology/speculative material culture post.
  • With regard to "laterality", I already made zled writing go left-to-right (yes, I have their alphabet worked out), so the majority of them write right-handed (lefties have to hold their hands funny to avoid smudging their ink, when they write left-to-right; that righties have to do that going right-to-left is why the Greeks switched the direction Phoenician was written when they adopted it for their language).

    I think zledo have opposite lateralization from humans, though, so either they regard writing as a novel/emergency activity (maybe because it's communication—social interactions are right-brained in Earth vertebrates), or else they do like cockatiels apparently do, and work on it with the opposite side from the one they'd look at it with (cockatiels usually manipulate food with the left foot, despite feeding being governed by the left side of the brain, which controls the right foot). Probably the first one, 'cause I don't think science has a handle on why cockatiels do that yet.

    I think they use the left hand (routine or familiar things, opposite of Earth) to eat (try holding a fork in your off-hand if you think there's no handedness in eating) and maybe when working on things that require no writing, since toolmaking arguably isn't a "novel"/"emergency" situation (even if the tool is novel its creation is usually roughly as routine as most feeding behavior).
  • A search of Le Blogue suggests I haven't mentioned it before, but did you know apiculture (beekeeping) is actually really unusual? In most cultures honey is a luxury, because you have to hunt down a wild honey tree and knock it down to get the stuff. Beekeeping is only known from China, the Maya, and Egypt—that last probably where the Jews and Greeks learned it (apparently the Babylonians tried to adopt it, but couldn't pull it off). African bees (a subspecies of European bee, hence why the two can breed) are so nasty because there is no apiculture in Sub-Saharan Africa; because the only way to get honey was to hunt it wild (destroying hives and killing lots of bees in the process), the people there basically, by accident, selectively bred their bees for aggression. A hive that's too dangerous to approach can't be hunted, after all.

    Mayan honeybees, meanwhile, are stingless. Maya apiculture was so important to some of them, especially the Chajoma (a branch of the Kaqchikel), that mead, along with pulque and corn beer, is one of the indigenous liquors of the New World; the Chajoma are actually called "beehive people" in the Popul Vuh. Personally I feel that we should study the causes of Colony-Collapse Disorder—then induce it in all European/African honeybee colonies in the New World. Replace the monstrous disgusting vermin with Mayan honeybees, which can't kill anyone. We'd probably have to breed them for a while to get their honey-production on par with the European ones, but anything is better than killer bees. Bringing in the Asian giant hornet would be better! (Those things hunt bees, and Euro-African bees don't have adaptations for defense against them.)
  • Speaking of mead, objectively, there are only eight kinds of fermented alcoholic beverage in the world. The two biggies, accounting for the vast majority of beverages, are ale made from grain, which includes sake and beer and the stuff made from millet and (American) corn; and cider made from fruit, which includes not only cider, pear-cider, and wine, but also things made from various melons and squashes (and even banana beer). Then you get mead from honey, blaand from whey, kumis from non-separated milk (usually of a horse), ibwatu/munkoyo made from sugary roots (which probably also includes the fermented-potato stuff that vodka is distilled from), neera and similar things made from sugary nectars, and pulque fermented from various sugary saps (which includes "palm wine").

    That last one arguably also includes things like boj and basi (the things we distill to get rum) that are fermented from sugarcane, since the juice we get cane sugar from is mostly sap. If you choose to count those separately, there are nine kinds of fermented liquor in the world. I came up with another one in my books: zledo have a drink made from fermented bug-shells, which have their chitin-analogue broken down into its component sugars, and then fermented into alcohol, by the gut-flora of a ruminant-analogue. (They have a legume-analogue they ferment by the same process, although that's arguably not that different from "ale", above, since none of their seeds correspond one-to-one with grain or legumes; indeed, they use the word for that stuff not only for our beer, but for our wine, since "fermented seeds" and "fermented fruit" look very similar to them.)

    It occurs to me that the mushroom-derived liquor consumed in Quarmall (in Nehwon) and by the drow in D&D, probably has to use something like the method zledo use with the bug-shells. Fungi, after all, have most of their carbohydrates locked up in chitin (rather than in cellulose like plants). I wonder if that makes Quarmallites go blind? Fermenting more complex carbohydrates tends to result in methanol, a problem seen sometimes in moonshine, when its makers use corncobs as well as the corn itself in their liquor.
  • The other day, I mentioned that "tortilla" means "little cake" ("torta" being "cake" like "strawberry tort"), and my dad asked why flat things are called cakes. I said that the original form of "cake" is what's encountered in "hotcake" or "pancake". The reason many medieval texts refer to, e.g., "cakes and ale", is because bread is actually a luxury item that requires centralized infrastructure. Originally only castles, and later major urban bakeries, could produce it, because only they had big ovens to bake it (or meat) in; ordinary people made their cooked flour-dishes by cooking on griddles and hearth stones. (Part of what this means is that piki-bread, of which you probably never heard, is misnamed—it's actually piki-cakes.)
  • So, apparently, you're going to eat a lot of sour, soy-sauce flavored, and spicy things on spaceships, and drink...tomato juice, apparently. Why? Airline food. I imagine most spaceships would probably have similar conditions inside to those on an airliner, i.e. relatively low pressure (airliners have the same internal pressure as is experienced at 2438 meters) and low humidity (c. 12%). That's why airline food tastes bad, taste-buds are used to having a certain amount of air and moisture to work with. The hardest hit are sweet and either salty or sour, so spaceships, like airlines, would lean heavily on things the passengers can still taste, like bitterness and savory (which I will call "umami" when someone explains why saying "savory" in Japanese makes more sense). Maybe that's why dry champagne is stereotypical of first-class? Astronauts eat hot sauce the way inmates smoke, although if they're not in free-fall you wouldn't have that trouble.

    Of course, some people would have less trouble with it that others; the few times I've been on airlines, and the one time I was on one that had a meal rather than just a snack, I didn't notice any problem with the food other than it being mass-produced school-lunch type fare. Why? I live at 2130 meters, and while my town's humidity is usually in the 40-50% range, I regularly go to Tucson, where the humidity is often 20% or lower (and they're still at 728 meters, which isn't comparable to the Colorado Plateau but it ain't the Eastern Seaboard, neither). My taste-buds are used to a much harder life than the average person's.

    In my setting, "modern" (c.2340s) spaceships have good enough climate control, vis-à-vis things like humidity, to have a stock of food that doesn't have to be over-seasoned or designed to work with the few taste-buds that still work correctly, because now they all do.
  • Was looking into capsaicin, for purposes of xenobiology. Decided zled physiology is much less calcium-heavy, since their bones are made of silica, so they use more sodium-gated nerve receptors, including in their TRP-channel analogues. What that means, among other things, is that while they have a chemical like capsaicin that activates their heat-receptors, just like we do, it doesn't work that way for humans...who experience it more like eating jellyfish venom. (Among the many hellish things in jellyfish venom—and seriously, what sea-god did we all anger?—is a sodium nerve-channel modulator, which is the main origin of the painful "being sliced with electrified red-hot razors" sensation from jellyfish stings.)

    Just one of many reasons not to eat alien food: aside from there being a very good chance you're allergic to their proteins (inasmuch as "allergic" means "the immune system mistakes it for a pathogen", and immune systems tend to err on the side of caution, for a reason), something they use to add a bit of "punch" might affect you as an agony-inducing neurotoxin. (It occurs to me that zledo might find poison-dart frogs spicy but otherwise harmless—assuming they take their antihistamines for the Earth proteins—since batrachotoxin, like jellyfish venom, also increases sodium influx in those ion-channels. Also, zled pepper-spray, which they presumably use mostly as a bouncer's weapon since they see no problem in carrying lethal weapons for self-defense, is probably lethally toxic to humans.)
  • With regard to the "split your skull by slapping it" thing, it apparently takes 2300 Newtons to crush a human skull. Given a jaguar-sized zled, it doesn't seem unreasonable to think they can do that, given that a tigress was measured inflicting 6200 Newtons while swatting around a ball (and no, tigers do not hit full-powered when playing). A heavyweight boxer named Frank Bruno apparently struck with 4100 Newtons. So why don't heavyweights split each other's heads?

    The deciding factor, probably more relevant than sheer brute force, is technique—two people can hit with the exact same force and get entirely different results, depending on things like "snap" versus follow-through, and the precise nature of the blow (e.g., a capoeirista can hit you just as hard with a bem são as with a martelo de bico, but the results are nothing like each other). Boxers are not trying to split each other's skulls, for multiple reasons—apart from the obvious ones (it's not actually a fight), is the fact that sending the opponent to the mat is enough to start the count in and of itself.

    Presumably it is more difficult for an untrained zled to get all the force of his blow into an opponent's head, rather than much of it just sending the opponent flying—though their entire adult male population has the equivalent of boot-camp and reservist training. It actually comes up that a zled who hits a helmeted human has a much better chance of breaking his neck than of smashing his skull (rapid head- and neck-movement—like that caused by a force that might, conceivably, split the skull if it hit differently—is theorized to be the source of most of boxing's one-hit KOs, by the bye).
  • Wasn't satisfied with the battery-powered mecha, so decided to do some searching around. Maybe methanol? Might use methanol for fuel-storage on spaceships, actually; they just split the methanol to get the hydrogen out (in a ruthenium-catalyzed process), without worrying about all the hydrogen that escapes simply through the gaps between atoms. Maybe use it in hydrogen fuel-cells, too. True, using methane as your storage-medium doesn't do a thing to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, but since we can use copper-oxide nanorods coated in cuprous oxide to synthesize methanol from carbon dioxide, that's probably a non-issue. (Late Addendum: Using methanol to store spaceship-propellant hydrogen adds too much weight, since methanol is only 12.6% hydrogen. It's still promising for every other purpose, though.)

    Methanol as a fuel isn't markedly different from gasoline—it's much less mass-efficient (5,472 and 2/9 watt-hours/kilogram versus gasoline's 11,777 and 7/9), but, one, that still means it only takes 3.25 kilograms/4.1 liters to power a 10-meter mecha (1,686 kilowatts) for one hour, and two, it's much less polluting and volatile than gasoline. Plus, methanol is easy to make, while gasoline has to be, pretty much, mined, and that only from places that have hosted life for millions of years. I figure 39 kilos/49.2 liters (which is 49,200 cubic centimeters—remember, SI units) is sufficient size for the fuel-tank...since it gives a full day of power. (Late Addendum 2: There's also the advantage that methanol is harder to ignite than gasoline, burns at a much lower temperature, and can be put out with water—all advantages for a military fuel.)

    Ruthenium, you might think (read the comments on that article I linked), is "one of the most expensive and rarest elements on the world", as that commenter put it. Here is where the mad scientist makes remarks about your lack of vision...because asteroid mining is an abundant source of ruthenium (indeed, all ruthenium mined on Earth was once on asteroids, since all the ruthenium actually incorporated into the Earth in its formation is currently deep inside it).

2014/06/24

Confirmanda de Veritate II

Reality checks. Several of 'em are for myself.
  • Did you know that the Hopi and certain other Pueblo peoples think they defeated the Spanish, in their respective uprisings (one of which is called "the Pueblo Uprising", although it wasn't the only one)? That is to say, a few groups of just-barely Neolithic subsistence farmers believe that they defeated the people who lived through 700 years of a gritty reboot of Red Dawn, and who were such pros at fighting in mountains and deserts that they handed Napoleon one of his few real, entirely human-caused defeats (Russia, of course, was a laurel for the brow of those two military geniuses, General January and General February). What actually happened in the Pueblos was, the Spanish essentially decided whatever they could get there wasn't worth the trouble of breaking them—and since both had made it clear they didn't want missionaries, that consideration was no longer a factor, either. The ease with which they could've wiped the rebellious settlements off the map is adequately expressed by the fact that their punitive expedition was able to systematically maim many leading members of the Revolt—not something that can be done by a force that isn't in near-complete control of the situation. But the Spanish had instituted a policy of appeasement with regard to hostile Indians (one that Mexico would largely continue, to their discredit when it came to the Comanche), so they left their retaliation at that.

    Why would the Spanish—who are one-half the reason the word "hot-blooded" is often followed by "Latin", in English—adopt a policy of appeasement? Well, because they more-or-less accidentally annihilated a couple of entire tribes in northern Mexico; they simply weren't used to fighting people whose entire adult male population could be killed in an afternoon. And remember, the Hopi now have three or four times their population in the era of their conflict with the Spanish...and it's still only 6,000-odd people. Hopi casualty numbers on par with those of Leonidas' personal guard at Thermopylae—not a conflict where guns, cannons, or cavalry played major roles, nor where one of the sides was armed with stone arrowheads against steel plate armor—could've been enough to completely wipe out Hopi culture, forever. (300 men would have been something like 60% of the entire adult male Hopi population. That is a demographic calamity a community may never recover from; the Hopi women and children would've been forced to disperse to neighboring communities, where they might well face enslavement in return for shelter.) The Spanish mercifully forbore to inflict such a fate over a handful of massacred colonists, and simply left.

    Then the Hopi shouted after them, "Yeah, you better run!"
  • Apparently I was wrong: the medievals, following Ptolemy, didn't think the universe was infinite, and they did think it was fairly small—73 million miles to the shell separating Earth, the moon, the sun, and the planets from the "fixed stars" (which were, I believe, conceptualized as windows into the Empyrean).

    73 million was still so much bigger than their (fairly accurate) estimate of the size of the Earth, courtesy of Eratosthenes, that for practical purposes two points on opposite sides of the Earth were on top of each other, relative to the scale of the heavens. It's the same as how, when dealing in kilometers, you generally ignore meters—at that scale, one side of, say, a house, is the same as the other side.

    They thought, by the way, that the stars were so close, because of a magnification of the "disc" of each star by the air—a phenomenon that wasn't discovered until 1828 (they knew that stars' sizes were distorted near the horizon, but didn't realize that it also happened even when the stars were directly overhead).
  • It also turns out, way back here, I was wrong about Puppeteers having parasitoid young making no sense, when they're herbivores. The majority of wasps that do that are actually herbivorous in adulthood.

    It still makes no sense for an intelligent species, though, because "intelligent" and "social" are essentially indistinguishable (there's no need to develop language if there's nobody to talk to, and without language intelligence is limited to the personal capabilities of individuals), and gregarious animals tend to be heavily K-selected (few offspring, reared carefully).

    K-selection generally doesn't go with the kind of "fire and forget" strategy that parasitoidism represents. Parasitoidism doesn't seem to go with any form of parental care; none of the eusocial wasps that I know of are parasitic, for instance.
  • When I said torture got much worse in the Middle Ages after the reintroduction of Roman Law, it seems I was understating the case. Apparently all torture in medieval society can be traced to Roman Law (which trickled back in, pretty much from the death of Charlemagne on).

    It had fallen out of use in the Common Law by the time of Charlemagne (whose laws were largely "Frankish", by which is usually meant "Gaulish"—other than inheritance-customs and fealty oaths, the Franks used the customs of their subjects, who were almost all Celts, and only semi-Romanized in the rural regions).

    We also have letters, dating from a bit after Charlemagne's death, from Pope St. Nicholas I to Boris I of Bulgaria, probably the first Christian prince of the Bulgars, about not using torture. Torture was of course a part of the customs of the pagan Bulgars, which surprises nobody with so much as a bookish ninth-grader's knowledge of anthropology.
  • Back here, where I said that aliens, portrayed as "a eugenicist military dictatorship, effete artisans of Byzantine complexity, an all-encompassing bureacracy, a rapacious merchant culture, a Proud Warrior Race", are "space-versions of Nazis, Communists, or various caricatures of the Japanese"? Well, it occurred to me, actually they're pretty much all actually some aspect, or stereotype of some aspect, of the Japanese. "Eugenicist military dictatorship" is Imperial Japan; "effete artisans of Byzantine complexity" is tea-ceremony Japan; "all-encompassing bureacracy" is Confucian Japan; "rapacious merchant culture" is 1980s industrial powerhouse Japan; and "Proud Warrior Race" is the samurai.

    Sure, all aliens in Japanese stuff that aren't kaiju or shrine-maiden princesses are basically Westerners (actually sometimes even the Godzilla-type are), but they do have the excuse of us having been an epoch-defining encounter for them. What's our excuse? (Well, we also do Television Indian-Noble Savage aliens, but go read the typical white hippie's conception of Shinto if you think that's not something we could be saying about the Japanese.) Actually, it occurs to me, we do have part of an excuse: when people call Japan "nation of contrasts", they may be being unoriginal but they're talking about a real thing (true statements often lack novelty, just one of many reasons novelty is no substitute for rational judgment). Japan's just got so much going on in its culture and history that virtually anything you can do in fiction will have a parallel there.
  • I find it amusing that people are still peddling the "Hollywood actresses are anorexic" folklore. Name one who is anorexic on-screen, since about the late 1990s. You can't. Know why? Boobs. After about 1996 or so, Hollywood started wanting actresses who were slender, but had generous busts (whereas actresses in the late '80s and early '90s were, indeed, very skinny, including being flat-chested). You simply don't get a big chest (or several other female features generally considered attractive) with eating-disorder levels of thinness.

    Which is not to say there is no anorexia in Hollywood, but it's not the actresses suffering from it. Nope. It's the men. Read that article. During the scenes where actors have their shirts off, they're literally anorexic—their trainers plan their diets so they're at minimal body-fat percentages (4-6% is considered the physiological minimum for the male body) during those shooting-days. And then there's the part about the guy who told his trainer he had so little trouble slimming down because he was on coke at the time. The trainer's response? "You should have told me, because I might have killed you. But I'd much rather have you doing a lot of blow than smoking a bunch of dope."

    Remember that next time you see a movie out of Hollywood about some other industry abusing its employees. Or about the treatment of greyhounds and race-horses, for that matter.

2014/06/04

Comentario 5

Random thoughts.
  • Even though "wheeled and tracked vehicles cannot travel on 40% of terrain" could justify walking artillery (assuming sufficient tech to make them work), it might still be asked why one doesn't just use aircraft for artillery platforms. But the answer, I think, is that aircraft are exposed; especially with the kind of technology that makes walking mecha feasible, anti-air fire is often too much of an obstacle, while walking mecha would be quite capable of taking cover. "Terrain" is essentially the same thing as having many tons of armor, for free, if you use it smart and don't let yourself be flanked.

    A large proportion of our assumptions about the future of mechanized warfare come from current conditions—where the "first string" technologically-advanced militaries never fight each other, they only fight insurgencies and third-string rogue states. That's not a condition anyone should count on being permanent. When the time comes that two high-tech militaries engage each other (it doesn't have to be in an "existential" war, the US and Russia or China might just be chasing each other's troops out of someplace like Iraq or Ukraine), we'll see what the real "future" war would look like.
  • I imagine that a mentally alert person who has somehow managed to still think religion and superstition are related (except for being negatively correlated), would probably get a headache upon prolonged exposure to the culture of Japan. It's a very secular country, where most people only attend shrines for New Year and births, and temples for funerals—but it's also a place where superstition runs rampant. I mean, you ever notice in anime how the girl who wants to get a bigger chest is always drinking milk? Well, why do you think that is?

    The answer is "if you eat your enemy's brain you gain his cleverness". Well, not quite, but it is based on a folklore principle that you eat liver to cure liver-trouble. A girl who wants to grow her chest drinks milk because milk comes from that part of the body (well, actually, its equivalent on a cow, but same difference). Admittedly, if it's whole milk, it might actually help (half-and-half would be better, and cream would be better than that), but so would eating lots of bacon.
  • I discover that mechanical counter-pressure space-suits have to be custom-made for their individual wearer. Now, admittedly, that's a lot easier with 3D printers, but it'd still realistically run into money (apparently it's also a pain in the ass to make gloves for 'em, although with future technology it might be more feasible to map the "lines of non-extension" even for a hand). But what do you do if you're a passenger on a ship, someone who does not ordinarily travel in space, and the habitat loses pressure? Simple, you zip yourself into a big inflated ball (presumably made of radiation-insulating materials).

    I wonder if zledo would actually have quite as much need for pressurized suits as we do? See, your skin actually maintains pressure pretty nicely, although it swells up (presumably quite uncomfortably) in a vacuum—you still have to protect your exposed soft tissue, of course. You also have to stuff your armpits and various cleavages even in a mechanical-counterpressure suit (maybe inflated underwear is a solution?). But zledo are built for flexibility on par with a cat, and, have you ever seen a hairless cat? They're covered in accordion baffles, because their skin is so loose. So a zled might be able to get by much more comfortably with a spacesuit that's much less careful about pressure, because his skin can expand much more before he starts to hurt.
  • Another thought about spacesuits is, while the "heraldry as personal identification" idea is fine (albeit why not just put an IFF transponder in the suit?), most people's conception of it ignores the actual nature of heraldry. Heraldry is not a vehicle for personal expression. It is a highly conventional, stylized system of communication, registered with a central body. If someone needs a degree in modern art to identify your escutcheon (Mr. Niven!), then it really isn't very useful as heraldry. This is also why nations founded after the invention of photography still use highly stylized emblems, rather than photographs, on their flags, and why commercial products have logos, rather than just photographs of the products in question.

    Now, it's entirely believable to say people paint all kinds of stuff on their suits for personal expression—but if they do, then for purposes of identification, they're probably going to just go with my IFF transponder idea. Especially if they're as individualistic as Belters (individualistic enough, that is, to be incapable of surviving in space longer than three generations), who presumably wouldn't want to have to deal with a centralized heraldry college. (Besides, we all know that what Belters would really paint on their suits would be wizards, dragons, and unicorns. But even mural vans still have license plates, proving my point.)
  • Pace glorified editorialist and hack dramatist noted historian Voltaire, the Holy Roman Empire had its ruler crowned, and blessed, by the Pope (rather than having him place his crown on his own head like the Byzantine αὐτοκρατής); used Roman law instead of Common Law, which was used in France until sometime after the scandal of the daughters-in-law of Philip the Fair; and was a confederation of aristocratic states with a unitary executive, and even pursued expansion by conquest.

    It was arguably as much of an Empire as Byzantium, or for that matter Tsarist Russia, Napoleonic France, Victorian England, or Hohenzollern Prussia; and certainly more of one than China, the Mughals, or the Ottomans. It was significantly more Roman than Byzantium, and its laws (though not its common language), for most of its 1005 years, were much more Roman than those of France. The only adjective that can actually be doubted is "Holy"...but Voltaire wouldn't know holiness if it jumped up and punched him in the mouth (it is not open to doubt that holiness would punch Voltaire in the mouth).
  • Was thinking. Thoughts were, one, that "Fifty Shades of Grey" is apparently a third of all the shades of gray your eye can distinguish, and two, that if the khângây were to write it, they would call it "Five Hundred Shades of Gray" (actually they'd call it "Seven Eights-squared, Six Eights, Four, Shades of Grey"—they have four fingers per hand).

    Except that they wouldn't, because (apart from their artisan-dominated culture encouraging a thing called taste), their potlatch-like culture disapproves of fan-fic, and that story began as Twilight fan-fic (it actually manages to make Twilight canon look healthy—and your civilization made it a best-seller, in the best argument yet for the Colony Drop). While the finished product sufficiently disguised its origins that even they couldn't complain, in a society with potlatch attitudes, E. L. James never would've started.

    Say what you will about intellectual property, making much of the concept would've prevented Fifty Shades of Grey.
  • If you wanted an example of how illiterate people are nowadays, you couldn't look much further than the very concept of the "linguistic turn" in modern thought. See, all philosophy before Descartes and Kant was linguistic; all the Hindu philosophers were grammarians (except a few who were mathematicians), while Aristotle's entire metaphysics was framed in terms of "we say X when Y"—it is as much functional grammar as it is epistemology. Augustine's "On Christian Doctrine" has been called, not without justification, "the pioneering work on semiotics".

    But, of course, unlike those most associated with the "linguistic turn", those ancient people didn't primarily devote themselves to constructing elaborate taboo-avoidance language—even though the Hindu ones believed that the grammar of Sanskrit was the foundational structure of the cosmos. You'd be hard-pressed to find anyone acquainted with the smelting of iron who thinks the primary purpose of linguistic speculation is finding ways to avoid inauspicious words; that's a behavior more associated with people who call all metals "flint". Outside of academia, anyway.
  • Well, I was trying to figure out how to get my head around how the zledo handle their lasers—a 60 mm (well, actually, 64.35 mm, because they aren't going to use round numbers of our units) lens is a bigger diameter than any current weapons except mortars and RPGs. Then I realized, though, that giving it an equilateral triangular casing is interesting, from a design standpoint; it has to be pretty wide, but it occurred to me you can stick things in the corners.

    So I decided the point under the lens (the triangle is flat side up—it's still worn at the waist rather than over the shoulder, with the flat against the hip and the grip designed for a cross-body draw) is where you can attach your bayonet or flashlight or, if you're using a very high-precision laser, a bipod. The other two points, I decided, are where they insert the heat-sinks, which I think vent along the bottom edge of those corners. Zledo, having fur and much tougher skin than humans, don't have to be very careful with their heat-sinks (remember how cats' fur actually starts to burn before they find a heater uncomfortable?), but humans using zled weapons have to watch out.

    I also decided to ditch the vaguely stone-looking material for the casings. Now the police sidearms ("hand lasers") are matte black (because their uniforms are black), while the military weapon ("long lasers") are the same fuchsia as their uniforms. Zled heavy weapons, which includes a c. 30 kJ anti-materiel laser, as well as grenade-launchers and RPGs, are orange (the stuff that still has to act as a pressure vessel, like the grenade-launchers, has a hexagonal casing).

2014/05/23

Les armes a feu spéculatives 2

That number is, of course, read as "deux". Guns post. Not all of them are directly sci-fi related, actually, but they all concern things that inform SF gun-thinking.
  • Remember my musing about whether the USMC cadre of the Peacekeepers, in my SF, would use a bullpup rifle or not? (Either way it was still going to be a Stoner-like design.) Well, apparently, the trigger-pull issue? Doesn't exist with electronic firing. I should've realized it wouldn't.

    So now I guess the Marine gun looks a bit like the Bushmaster M17S, albeit probably not so 1980s. (It's still a Stoner rifle, a modified form of the AR-16 that was the predecessor of the AR-18, and therefore also of the Howa 89式 the JSDF use. It probably would, like the AR-18, still be short-stroke rather than direct-impingement, though; direct-impingement adds heat, which you don't want in a caseless design. The electronic firing, removing the issues of trigger-pull, probably makes up for any loss of accuracy.)
  • Apparently, one of the interesting things about the "AKs are so reliable, ARs are crap" folklore, is, when an AK gets something in its gas-system (which can include rust, with old Russian-made or less-old Arab-made ammo leaving corrosive residue), it ceases to shoot. (Supposedly the way to clear it is to kick the bolt carrier. Like, literally. Apparently you often needed a hammer, though.) Know what an AR does, when something goes wrong with its gas-system? It becomes bolt-action.

    Apparently, AKs also jam if they start to overheat—and in even moderately sustained fire, they do overheat, not least because the forward grip consists of wood wrapped around the barrel (Soviet training preferred to avoid sustained fire; the nations they handed AKs out to like Halloween candy, though...). Wood is an insulator; apparently it will even start to smolder before too long, leaving you with a lovely birch-smoked hand (yes, I looked up what wood is most common for AKs) and a remarkably expensive metal-and-wood club.
  • It occurs to me, the khângây might use small coil vulcans (or I guess rotary coilguns?) as their equivalent of an assault rifle or LMG. Presumably semi-auto fire, given their technology, has sufficient time between shots for barrel-wear not to be an issue. And I figure three barrels, like the M197 or GAU-19, might make assault-rifle rates of fire feasible (and I think the rotation would be recoil-operated, so the battery doesn't have to run the rotor as well as the firing).

    I figure they'll have a casing over it, like what sticks out of the nose of an A-10 Thunderbolt. Does a small-arms rotary firearm sound far fetched? It is overplayed, generally without reference to the real requirements of a machinegun of that size (though then again people ignore the realities of fixed-barrel machineguns, too). But, before you go saying it'd never be done, you may want to talk to E. C. Neal.
  • I realize that Attack on Titan (which is actually Titan(s) of the Charge, given what "shingeki" means) is at least partly horror, so its plot necessarily runs partly on the Idiot Ball, but nevertheless, there are much more effective means at their disposal for fighting the things than leaping around on cables and chopping them with giant box-cutters. These people have cannons, so why aren't they using chain-shot? That'd quite easily cut a Titan in half, and if you point it so the chain passes through the weak-spot in the neck, it'll kill it in one blow, without anyone being anywhere near its hands.

    Of course, along with the Idiot Plot nature of AoT's horror aspect, is the "I don't care if it makes no sense, it's cool" nature of the action aspect. There are more efficient means of taking on Titans than the "3D maneuver gear"/giant box-cutter combo. Realistically, all but the biggest Titans would be little match even for men on horseback; you just have a few horsemen, working as coordinated pairs or small teams, ensnare the Titans' ankles, and then drag them over a giant version of "severe tire-damage" traffic-spikes, cutting through their weak-spot and annihilating them. And, since the Titans are the whole reason they live the way they do, they would've built giant traffic-spikes, and other anti-Titan defenses, all around the Walls, and into (at least) parts of the city streets.

    In real life, no one method of fighting—and Titans are basically armor without guns—is an automatic win, armor needs infantry support and infantry needs artillery; air alone is close, but you still need a diverse air force (something the "let's give the A-10's job to the F-35" people apparently don't understand). Titans would actually be only a minor inconvenience, at least for anyone who has guns.
  • I think I've mentioned that zled space-forces are a branch of their artillery? They also have more ordinary artillery; as I said, they don't have our distinction between tanks and other guns, because their "tanks" are just up-armored self-propelled batteries that also have close-range attack capabilities. (I think zledo call them simply "armored guns"; we called a light-tank design project the "Armored Gun System", rather than, y'know, "light tank design competition", and unlike us zledo never used "tank", "cistern", or "reservoir" as code-names for "caterpillar machine-gun destroyers"—and they don't have "caterpillars", either.)

    Their artillery presumably does distinguish degrees of armor, among its guns, but also things like direct versus indirect fire, ballistic versus propelled (as in once the projectile leave the gun), and guided versus unguided munitions. I also think there might be a distinction between "fast" guns, on treads or spherical wheels (I think the spherical wheels give approximately the same performance as treads, but with an increase of speed and maneuverability), and "slow" or "all-terrain" guns, which are basically "spider tanks", with four legs. Hey, I said my SF had bipedal mecha, I never said all the mecha were bipedal.
  • I really ought to go back to the Peacekeeper rifles' round being comparable to the .30-06, although it's still in a 7 mm package (rather than 7.62). Assuming each round weighs 10 milligrams (quite doable in that caliber if .270 Winchester and .270 Weatherby Magnum are any indication), and a muzzle velocity of 850 m/s, we get a muzzle energy of 3612 Joules. That requires a propellant load of 3.564 grams of nitrocellulose. 3.564 grams nitrocellulose is the equivalent of 1.497 grams of octanitrocubane, which has a volume of 726.699 cubic millimeters. If the propellant has the same diameter as 6.8 Remington SPC's brass casing (10.7 mm), and if we treat the 7 millimeter by 31 millimeter bullet as a cylinder, then we get a length to the propellant cylinder of 21.35 millimeters. It sticks out 1.85 millimeters in back (uniform thickness all around) and goes 19.85 millimeters up the side of the bullet.

    Given this, I guess we need to rename the thing "7 × 21 mm", rather than "7 × 18 mm". If each empty 60-round casket mag weighs 192 grams, and each round now weighs 11.5 grams (give or take 3 milligrams), then each fully-loaded magazine now weighs 882 grams. Compare that to the weight of seven STANAG 30-round magazines—each (taking into account that the M855 lead-free cartridge is slightly heavier than the old M193) weighs 486.3 grams—we find that, for only 3.6% more weight (3528 g vs 3404 g), each Peacekeeper can carry 14.3% more ammo—240 rounds as opposed to 210. And he only has to reload four times, instead of seven.
  • Given the caseless rounds are only 32.85 millimeters long, it might be feasible to have the magazines load in the top—like those on the P90. FN 5.7 × 28 is 40.5 millimeters long, and we know you can use its magazines on an assault rifle (leaving to one side those who consider the P90 an assault rifle rather than a PDW or SMG). People do—there's a modified upper receiver for AR-15s that re-chambers them for FN 5.7 and lets them use P90 magazines. It's called an AR-57, or AR Five-seven (or presumably "AR Five-seveN", to those who didn't find that gimmick annoying in the pistol).

    One advantage, I think, to having the magazine where the P90 puts it, is you can see what your ammo-level is like (assuming the clear magazines so popular with the P90), without having to change your position. Most other magazine designs, bullpup or otherwise, force you to take your weapon off your shoulder to see where the mag-level is at, even if the magazine has clear sides. (Sure, you should keep track of how much you've fired, but what if you're handed a new weapon, or have to take one off a corpse?) Probably in real life, definitely in games, there are ways to mechanically or electronically indicate how many rounds remain—that counter on the back of the assault rifle in Halo?—but nothing beats being able to look.
  • On the other hand, the sights on the P90 are a bit inelegant and unwieldy, 'cause of having to make room for the magazine. Might keep the magazine where it is ("normal bullpup", in other words) after all; I do have an awful lot of references to "casket magazines" that would need to be rewritten. Maybe use the P90 approach for the khângây small-arms coil-vulcan, though? That or helical magazines. Maybe both, under different circumstances—the helical ones would presumably be preferable for sustained fire/LMG applications, since they'd have less risk of jamming since they wouldn't have to rotate the bullet before chambering it. Ooh, yeah, I like that. And have the magazine under the barrel, instead of on top (which removes the "weird sights" issue). That probably means the bottom barrel is the one that fires, rather than the top like on our Gatling guns.

2014/05/17

We Call It Voight-Kampff for Short

Post about artificial intelligence and robots. You ought to know what the title's a reference to.
  • Why is it that every 18th- and 19th-century novelty toy, playing music or writing letters or doing various other tasks, some of them "programmable" because there are multiple cartridges of mechanical "instructions" for them to follow, gets called "early computer"? It's a sewing machine or a player piano—are those "early computers"?

    We've been doing mechanical embroidery, with "programmed" patterns, since at least the 1870s; fundamentally none of these "early computers" is any different from the industrial loom—except the industrial loom drastically lowers the price of decent garments, the novelty toy does nothing and improves the life of nobody (well, no more than any other interesting novelty item improves people's lives—a form of "happiness" that a fiction-writer probably ought not to despise).

    You might call them "early robots" (since "robots" refers primarily to the industrial usage), but that's not what people do. Words mean things. Please don't use words that are not applicable, just because they are similar to other words that are.
  • I feel like setting out some rules of engagement, for people who wish to defend the millennarian hopes of the Transhumanist faithful, when other people make remarks about the realities of neurology and the limits of machine logic, and their implications for Kurzweil's prophesied techno-Rapture. One, don't take your username from books (or God forbid, movies of books) by William Gibson; he knew about as much about computers as H. G. Wells knew about trans-lunar injection. Two, don't demonstrate that you don't actually know what "most complex" means—Microsoft Windows is, objectively, the most complex computer program the human race ever created, and your opinion of how good an OS it is is completely irrelevant. (That other OSes are "elegantly simple" by comparison is actually one of their selling points—the significance of "most complex" in this context is that Microsoft Windows, with all its many, many crashes, is still 3.2 million times smaller than the representation of a human brain as one-line-of-code-per-cell or synapse...and realistically we would probably need multiple lines of code to represent certain cells and synapses.)

    Three, don't demonstrate that you are too stupid to grasp what hardware emulation is, by asserting that the number of braincells and synapses is irrelevant—and three-point-five, do not act like actually researching relevant facts like those numbers, on something like this, makes someone a target for ridicule. (The reverse is the case: that you don't know the relevant facts, and have not even bothered trying to explain how your enterprise will cope with them, shows how intellectually bankrupt you are.) And finally, four, do not tell the other party they must've selected "Gödel Incompleteness" at random, as a basis for their case. If you don't even know that Gödel only came up with the idea while exploring the limits of machine logic—because Hilbert was trying to make a machine that could handle all of logic—then you are simply announcing that not only do you have no right to your opinion, you don't even know what would or would not constitute a right to an opinion, on this matter. I'm not saying you can't challenge the argument from neurology (you pretty much can't challenge the argument from the limits of machine logic, or at least nobody has yet—every attempt to refute Lucas-Penrose that I know of has mostly been a demonstration of illiteracy); but the fact of the matter is that you're not trying to challenge those arguments.

    (Yes, I am thinking of a particular person. But all of these errors are common occurrences, though the unnamed idiot in question was the first I'd ever seen with all of them.)
  • It occurs to me that "civil registries" are a poor thing to base a robot's ethics programming on—over and above the silliness of the Three Laws. Realistically an AI would be able to recognize humans, among other things, with a dedicated "object-class detection" (AKA "object recognition") program, presumably one of the suite of "weak" AIs a strong AI (assuming you can get one) would be made up of.

    Likewise, one wouldn't define "harm" according to the ICD definition of "injury"; there are apparently ways now to make a robot mechanically detect when any motion would exceed "the human pain tolerance limit", so presumably a society that can make a natural-language interface you can meaningfully talk with, can give its AIs sufficient situational-analysis to know when an action would exceed one of several limits of human tolerance. "Safeguarding-space violation" or "safety-space violation" would apparently be the term for "harm" in a robotics context.

    Incidentally, robots that don't have Asimov programming (which, remember, AIs dislike) would still be programmed to behave in accordance with ISO 13482. Because we now have an industrial standard for those!
  • It occurs to me that what you'd really want AI for, is to have one person, on-call 24-7, who can answer any concern anyone might bring to it, rather than getting "well when Bob was on duty he said..." situations. You'd still probably want to have a normal person in overall command, since you don't necessarily want something that can be hacked to have any legal authority, but there is, as you can see, a real market for them (unfortunately for hippies, that market is mostly the military).

    Incidentally, you could probably give the same job to a person who's had their need for sleep done away with. But whether that's actually possible, or advisable long-term, is an open question; sleep serves some necessary purpose, since organisms that only have half their brain asleep at a time still do sleep, which they wouldn't if they could've done without it. We don't actually know what sleep is for, or what doing away with it would cause.

    There's also the question of whether it's remotely ethical to ask anyone to have their brain screwed with like that, a question that doesn't come up with an AI (though there are questions about whether you ought to create a person just to do a specific task), but apparently most people don't think there's anything wrong with restricting key posts to eunuchs? (Many eunuchs, historically, were volunteers, so "consent makes everything okay" is not valid—not that it ever is.)
  • As is my custom when writing one of these posts, I read manga about robots in my other browser tabs. There's a neat little one called "Ninomae Shii no Tsukaikata" or "How to Use Ninomae Shii", that sadly only lasted 30 chapters (the reader-questionnaires are a harsh mistress). It's about a robot made by a middle-school Nobel Prize winner, searching for his purpose.

    But...the purpose of a strong-AI, aside from any jobs it might happen to perform, would be the same as the purpose of any other self-aware entity. Self-aware entities have, as their purpose, the fact they exist, and the contemplation and appreciation of that fact. (The Baltimore Catechism phrases it more succinctly, in the famous answer to question 126.)
  • There is apparently some idea abroad in the land that "android" means bio-engineered, while a robot shaped like a man is called a "humanoid". Only, Common Usage, mammajamma: "android" means "robot shaped like a man" ("gynoid" is sometimes used for "robot shaped like a woman", but usually that's just called "female android"), while the bio-engineered things are called "bioroids". "Humanoid", meanwhile, means anything shaped like a human, living or not (an "android" is a humanoid robot). (Sometimes, in settings where such a distinction makes sense—all of them space-opera—"humanoid" is restricted to Rubber Forehead Aliens, and the other, more vaguely man-shaped, guys are called "bipeds" or something.)
  • I was wondering how to write androids getting freaked out (remember, I have strong-AIs due to a highly unorthodox software workaround). At first I thought they wouldn't get chills, because while some of them do have body hair (the one whose job is infiltrations does), they didn't evolve from animals that sometimes survived by puffing up their fur to look bigger.

    It occurred to me that they might involuntarily switch to a different power-generation mode, one more active than just homeostasis, as their "subconscious" (the multiple weak-AI programs that govern their bodies, semi-independently of the strong-AI that is their consciousness) gears up for fight-or-flight. But then someone, talking about Transformers, said "chillingly" still makes sense in the context of the Cybertronian "biosphere", because their cooling-systems shift into high-gear to dump the excess heat caused by exertion.

    So...androids get chills. Briefly; unlike humans, it's much simpler for them to control involuntary responses like that. Incidentally, the strong-AI programs themselves are, in part, made of a gestalt of multiple weak-AIs, just like the "unconscious" programs that govern the bodies they're in—a couple of weak-AIs handle language, a couple more handle object-recognition, and so on. There's even programs for making decisions and for "discursive thought", but none of them is really the AI program, anymore than "you" is your language-capability or decision-making or even discursive thought.
  • Likewise, my strong-AI androids can dream (make your own "electric sheep" joke). Why? Well, they periodically enter a de-frag mode, in which they can't otherwise be conscious, but, since their AI-consciousness doesn't simply cease to exist, they have experiences made up of random portions of their memories—which is basically what dreams are. They experience fragmentation because most fragmentation-preempting techniques can cause performance problems. Not a big deal for a PC; kinda one, for a person's mind.

    The non-android AIs don't have that problem (see above: they're awake 24/7). They have enough processing capability (since they don't have the space-constraints an android does) that they can either preempt fragmentation, or else defrag "in the back of their mind". That might be kinda like those animals that only sleep with half their brain at a time. I think it adds a touch of realism, that cramming an AI into what processing-capacity fits inside a head comes with some loss of capability.

2014/05/12

Distortion Levels So Low as to Make a Brave Man Weep

It occurred to me, you can actually transmit optical hi-fi analog. How? Easy—if you're, say, scanning a near-UV nano-scale optical storage medium, you just have what the near-UV laser gets as input, be output again, say as a 532-nanometer laser (since that wavelength experiences little degradation, even across interstellar distances). That, you can then watch on something that receives those signals, or record back to other media. It's still very unwieldy compared to digital streaming, but it's also superior to digital. Interestingly, it works a lot like VHS did, back in the day, but HiFi.

2014/05/06

Lives, Fortunes, Sacred Honor

Oh like you can come up with a better title for a post about alien biology, speculative material culture, and military science fiction.

517 is 11×47, the sum of five consecutive primes (97+101+103+107+109), and a Smith number, which is where the sum of its digits (in decimal) is equal to the sum of its prime factorization's digits (5+1+7=13, 1+1+4+7=13).
  • Reading up on birds is almost certainly an absolute requirement for anyone that wants to do xenobiology and alien psychology. Birds are every bit as advanced as mammals—actually ravens may be smarter than any mammal that isn't actually sapient, given they've been shown to hold grudges over attacks at which the individual raven was not present, i.e. they tell each other about threats. Yet their brains and those of mammals diverged a third of a billion years ago. And it shows.

    Birds, for example, do not have a corpus callosum. The two hemispheres of their brains, however, are both active during song—all the impulses shoot back into the arcopallium (around the middle of the brain), and even all the way back to the brainstem and thalamus, because those are the only thing linking the two. An experiment with pigeons revealed that the fact birds in the egg are always curled up the same way—and thus always have only one eye exposed to light—is instrumental in teaching their brain-hemispheres to coordinate; pigeons incubated in the dark (i.e., where there was no difference of light between the embryo's eyes) couldn't coordinate data between their eyes (each bird eye only sends information to one brain hemisphere, unlike mammals). (Birds only "learn" images directly with the brain-hemisphere connected to the eye that actually sees them; screw up the architecture of inter-hemisphere coordination, and merely covering one of their eyes means they lose access to all the images that eye has learned.)

    Apparently, by the way, all vertebrates use the left side of the brain to process routine behavior, like feeding (including, probably, hunting), while the right side is used to process novel things and emergencies (which includes social interactions and mating). That's the real origin of the "left-brain, right-brain" folklore, so popular with seminars. Birds, since their eyes only map to one hemisphere each, will actually look at things with different eyes, depending on which category the thing goes into.
  • You know how I keep saying "society" is best modeled as "a method of resolving territorial disputes by agreeing to treat all conspecifics as kin in the absence of obvious hostile intent"? One interesting aspect of it is, if they are kin, specifically siblings—and as I've said, "sibling" is the only relationship that exists when "mating" and "parent/child" are off the table—then some of the acts of "violence" in society are not violations of the agreement to treat everyone as kin. Why? Dominance scuffles.

    Some "fights" are better modeled as attempts to modify or reassert "pecking order" within a peer group (which, again, functions as a group of siblings in ethological terms). Now, of course, dominance scuffling can get quite violent when the two are not actually related (remember, that's why we used to think wolves were so violent—in captivity their packs were made up of unrelated animals), but it is still a fundamentally different activity from making, or fending off, territorial incursions. You know how you used to be able to fight out your differences under certain circumstances, without the cops getting involved? There were some sound ethological reasons for that mindset.
  • That people fundamentally do not understand that a lot of the use of force is dominance scuffles—or that war is "politics by other means"—is why you get the idea, in science fiction, that war with aliens would necessarily involve one of us annihilating the other. They think (because they are either fat happy peace-drunk fools, or craven physical cowards—possibly both), that the goal of fighting is to kill the other person.

    The goal of fighting is to remove the threat posed; or actually to impose your will on the other person, even if your will is only "not to be annexed/robbed/murdered/raped/whatever". (Defensive fighting is still fighting: you are both imposing your will by force. That isn't always wrong, all your tribal prohibitions notwithstanding. I'm sorry ethics is more complex than a Kazimir Malevich paint-by-number.)
  • Alien senses make a big difference to their scientific and technological development, as I've hit upon. The khângây, for instance, can distinguish individual sounds from a group of several, meaning among other things that their informal conversations don't involve stopping to let the other person talk, because you can both follow each other just fine (in formal situations, of course, there are etiquettes about turn-taking). It also, however, means they simply can't throw white noise onto a digital recording to smooth the jaggies (when I get tired, I can't listen to digital music—I notice the white noise, and it's actually quite unpleasant). I think they therefore use, instead, nano-scale optical analog Hi-Fi. That means digital media is largely moot to them, and their potlatch intellectual-property views; a big part of why file-sharing works for us is MP3s usually sound good enough.

    Zledo don't have quite that problem—at high enough resolution, they can actually use white noise to make digital audio work. But in earlier times, before digital media, they didn't actually start publishing music recordings till they had Hi-Fi, because with their hearing (which has a wider range than khângây, both in terms of frequency and faintness, but can't pick out individual sounds as well), they find the "noise" of Lo-Fi audio recordings too distracting. Now, I don't know how much that would've slowed the development of recording technology; after all, the big reason we kept doing Lo-Fi for so long was because that was "good enough" for many people (possibly just the sheer novelty of recorded music carried it for a while—remember how awesome we all thought the first iMac's version of Quicktime Musical Instruments was?). Presumably once they started converting sound waves to electric ones they then started working on making the electric waves produce sounds they actually liked hearing.
  • I think I have a good enough justification for parasite space-craft being used in battles ("space fighters", though the thing they launch from is a mother-ship, not a carrier). You distribute the launch points around your mother-ship, so it can lob missiles, bullets, and beams from many directions at once, and you want them controlled internally, because—ask anyone who's played Team Fortress (or heard their brother screaming at the computer while playing Team Fortress)—lag kills. In space, anyone close enough to a remote weapon system to operate it without lag, already is aboard it for all practical purposes.

    As for "why not put an AI on the ship", well, remember how I compared the cost of developing AI to the Space Shuttle program? Well, extending the parallel, even after the initial development (which, if it cost as much as developing the Space Shuttle, was the equivalent of $38,277,033,135.80), an individual AI costs the equivalent of $450 million (the entire 2012 defense budget of Armenia). Not to put too fine a point on it, but three highly trained pilots are a hell of a lot cheaper than that.

    The human ones launch by electromagnetic catapult; their engines are for maneuvering and slowing down, as much as possible, after the battle. Then, I think, the mother-ship or a dedicated retrieval craft either picks it up or tows it back to the mother-ship, respectively. Presumably there's a beacon on the craft, to aid in pickup once the battle's over. The zled ones have metric-patching engines, whose operation-range stands to rockets as nuclear submarines stand to diesel ones; they can return to their mother-ship under their own power (they can also land, using plasma sails, since the difference between them and the entry-vehicles is armor, weapons, and crew-space, not atmospheric capability).
  • Remember how I said every attempt to portray a species with more than two sexes is always actually male, female, hermaphodite, and neuter—"a, b, both, neither" but never "c"—with varying degrees of fluidity between them? I recently came across another option, where the multiple "sexes" have different roles to play in the life of the offspring, things I would describe as "passive defense" and "active defense" and various other things.

    But...no species that reproduced like that would survive; the complexity of mate-selection increases exponentially with every extra member, since every prospective partner must be compatible with all the others. Besides, no such species ever answers the "every intelligent alien represents a biosphere as complex as Earth's" issues—how do four-sexed cockroaches or lizards or birds behave?

    Also, plenty of terrestrial organisms do everything described by that system, and without deliberately hamstringing the efficiency of their reproduction: it's called "caste". Ant workers or termite guards aren't another sex, they're just non-reproductive (usually) members of the same sex(es) as their reproductive caste.
  • The reason animals have leg-anatomy like chickens and wolves (i.e. "digitigrade stance"—their knees don't bend backwards, that's an ankle, and they walk on their toes) is that the strength of a muscle is proportional to the cross-sectional area divided by the length. Walking digitigrade (or with lengthened ankle bones forming a third leg-joint, like frogs—and zledo) lets an animal have longer legs, and thus longer strides, without sacrificing strength—because it increases the total length of the leg without increasing the length of its individual muscles. All of that is well and good, and quite likely to show up in alien anatomy. But...why does it show up in mecha? The power of a hydraulic or pneumatic cylinder is primarily a function of the pressure of the cylinder's working fluid; while a very long cylinder obviously needs more working fluid to pressurize, it's nothing like what's experienced with muscles. Think of the kinds of loads hydraulically activated cranes regularly move, on sections far longer than the typical mecha's limb-joints. No, I think the chicken walker is a purely aesthetic thing.

    Realistically, of course, the optimal layout for a walking tank is probably something like the Scarab from Halo, or some other "spider tank". You want to be able to walk (so you can go on that 40% of land-surface wheeled and tracked vehicles can't traverse), but you also want a stable platform for artillery. On the other hand, though, part of the appeal of any kind of walking machinery is psychological—bestriding the battlefield as a colossus—and a spider tank just doesn't give that (but a humanoid tank can go most places a spider can). Also, despite what Gundam would have us believe, two places where there is absolutely no reason to use mecha are space and underwater. You really wouldn't even have them be able to fly. You don't need legs to go everywhere you need to in the air or in space or underwater, planes/helicopters, submarines, and rockets are adequate to our needs in those environments. Just like how you only need legs for locomotion on the ground, your machines would only need them for that, too (although you might build a mecha that runs for a takeoff, as a heavy attack-plane, I suppose—the psychological factor is probably useful for close air support).

    Also? Dear DeviantArt: when I search "realistic mecha", by what possible rationale do I get even one picture of Cheetor, from Beast Wars? Inquiring minds want to know.
  • In case you wondered, it's quite doubtful that an alien species would not have brain-hemisphere "decussation" (crossing over—the left brain hemisphere controls/responds to the right side of the body, and vice-versa). Decussation is apparently topologically superior, in terms of wiring; it reduces the likelihood of connection errors, which become a significant problem as the number of connections increases.

    Of course, nothing says your aliens have to map their hemispheres the way we do. Flip 'em, if you like—have 'em process routine behavior with the right and emergencies with the left—or divide the functions each hemisphere processes on a different basis. Maybe their optic nerves don't cross (despite vision's importance, the eyes are connected to the brain by relatively few nerves, so there may not be a risk of connection error), or maybe their whole bodies are wired like mammal optic nerves, and some impulses go to the opposite side.

2014/04/27

Mélange II

I want to say "He who controls the random thoughts controls the universe", but if they're controlled, they're not really random.
  • Here, Damien G. Walter, welfare leech pretending to be a writer (no seriously, the UK government gave him a grant to write a novel—and elsewhere on that blog, he attacks the idea of writing as a business, i.e. as a legitimate trade), complains that superhero teams are never more than 1/4 female. The implication—couched as it is in terms of "women are half the population"—is that this is unrealistic.

    But...police forces are 12.7% female (in terms of officers with arrest powers—a higher percentage of their total employees are female). That's 1/8. The active-duty military is 14.2% female. That's about 1/7. So actually, what's "unrealistic" is that superhero teams have too many women, not too few—out of every 200 characters in both big houses' rosters (that's probably close to the number of characters actually showing up in comics at any given time), only twenty-seven should be female!

    Alternatively, if we assume that superpowers cause twice as many women to enter that kind of work, then comic books are right where they should be.
  • It occurs to me that an idea many people have about Japanese philosophy may be due to a mistranslation. I noticed this watching...I think Gurren Lagann?...where something like "sore wa ore no shinjitsu" was translated as "that's my truth". But...that's not what it means. Japanese has to say things like "shinjitsu", literally "belief-truth" or "belief-fact", for the very simple reason that they don't have relative constructions—"shinjitsu" means "what I believe". If one prefers a more literal translation (which in this case also captures some of the word's broader connotations), go with "credo".
  • It has been remarked that Arcee, in Transformers Prime, is too damn big for her vehicle mode. It's simplest with a visual aid.
    See? One of her calves, maybe, being generous, one of her legs, fits inside that bike. The rest of her? Hell no.

    So I crunched some numbers. We can actually assume that a Cybertronian is only as dense as a human, rather than as dense as automotive alloy, since they have a lot of empty space inside for their parts to move through when they switch modes. But supposing we take a very big bike, like say a Yamaha XV1900A, the biggest bike Yamaha makes. It weighs 329 kilograms. Now, assuming that Arcee is proportioned like an average woman (which my back-of-the-envelope calculations say is, globally speaking, 160 centimeters and 56.4 kilos), we get an Arcee who stands 288 centimeters—i.e. 9 feet 5 inches, instead of probably almost 20! You want her bigger, guys, well, make her a damn car like she's always been.

    Incidentally, while we're on the subject, the helicopter Airachnid is obviously based on, the RAH-66 Comanche (which didn't get picked up), weighs 4,218 kilos. That means she should be 2.34 times as tall as Arcee.
  • Of course, along with Arcee being too big for her vehicle mode, Starscream is too small, both in G-1 (which doesn't give a tinker's damn about scale) and in Prime (which sort of does, a little). Starscream's alt mode in Prime is an F-16 Fighting Falcon (with the VIN numbers melted off); it's 700 kilos lighter than his G-1 F-15 Eagle alt-mode. But that still means he weighs 12 megagrams. Knockout, for example, is basically an Aston Martin DB9, with a curb weight of about 1750 kilos; taking the cube root of their mass difference, Starscream should be 9.6 meters tall, 89% taller than Knockout, not "about a head" taller.

    Knockout and Bumblebee are also probably too big; the mass ratio of an Aston Martin or a new Camaro to a human gives a height of 5 meters; they're both more like 8. Optimus, too, is sized weird—given that a Peterbilt 379 masses about 8,200 kilos (depending on engine and a couple other variables), he ought to be 70% taller than a car-bot—8.45 meters—but that's 12% shorter than Starscream. Megatron probably can't be the same size as Optimus, because he has to be bigger than Starscream. Maybe give him a Hind attack helicopter vehicle mode, half again as heavy as Starscream? That'd make him 16% taller than his Air Commander (31.7% taller than Optimus), at 11.1 meters.
  • Are we married to Optimus being a Peterbilt? 'Cause as a Mack Titan, he could go up to 48 megagrams, which lets him be the same size as a Megatron that turns into a JGSDF Type 10 main battle tank (both of them would be 15.2 meters tall, 58.7% taller than Starscream and triple the height of car-bots). While we're at it, Jetfire ought to be 13.1 meters, 37% taller than Starscream, assuming that Jetfire is an SR-71 Blackbird—which is the one aspect of Michael Bay's Jetfire that isn't blasphemy. Then again, given Jetfire carries other Autobots and is associated with space, the An-225 Mriya (biggest plane ever flown) might be a better choice—that makes him 27.6 meters tall, fully 2.87 times as tall as Starscream and 1.81 times as tall as a Mack Titan Optimus or Type 10 MBT Megatron. (An F-22 Raptor Starscream would be 11.3 m tall, 2.24 times as tall as Knockout or Bumblebee, and only 26% shorter than MBT Megatron and Mack Titan Optimus. An An-225 Mriya Jetfire would be 2.43 times his height, while an SR-71 Blackbird Jetfire would only be 16% taller than him.)
  • To compute the necessary mass for a comfortable little spaceship, suppose we look at passenger trains? An Amtrak Superliner car weighs 67,132 kilos. Obviously we can knock off the weight of the bogies (the wheels); I can't find numbers for this specific type of car's wheels but the numbers I can find on British cars say about 6.8 megagrams each (and there's two per car, one at each end), so that brings the weight down to 53,732 kilos. Treating the whole thing as made of (low-alloy high-strength) stainless steel, but substituting aerospace aluminum alloy for that steel (because a spacefaring civilization could probably reduce all the other associated weights of furniture, etc., by a similar proportion), we wind up with a mass of 18,875 kilos. Knocking off half of that gives us a "train" with only five bedrooms (only the upper sleeper floor) and a dining capacity of eight tables and a small kitchen (also only the upper diner floor) that masses only 9,437.5 megagrams. That could be taken to Low Earth Orbit by a Delta Clipper-like SSTO ship—which might there rendezvous with a starship equipped with a big engine and a space-fold drive.note
  • I wonder if the way English's appositional phrases and relative constructions work, is related to the fact that older Indo-European languages were much more "right-branching" than English is today. Indo-European languages used to put adjectives after nouns, the way English still puts adverbs after verbs (of course, most of the Romance languages and Celtic languages still usually put adjectives after nouns, as do Slavic ones when the adjectives are genitive noun-derivations; and all the Scandinavian languages, and Romanian, use a suffix for the definite article). Putting anything but numbers and prepositions before nouns is an innovative structure, in Indo-European, and most things still actually work the other way.

    Japanese, on the other hand, puts its appositives and relative clauses (to the extent it's got the latter, which it's often said not to) before the thing they modify—because Japanese has never put adjectives, or anything else that modifies a noun except postpositions and case-particles, after the nouns they modify, unlike Indo-European languages. It also marks them with a genitive, instead of a relative pronoun, hence why they're described as not having "relative" constructions. (Tibetan forms its "relative clauses"—which are sometimes referred to as such by grammarians of Tibetan—the same way as Japanese, by marking a whole phrase with a genitive particle; it's not "the man that saw the bear" but "the man of having seen the bear".)
  • Has anyone noticed that the elephant in the room, in every discussion of "mind uploading", is that—leaving to one side the issues of the Lucas-Penrose Argument and what it says about the limits of machine logic—any device you can upload your mind to, would have to constantly emulate your original hardware? And seriously, know what the biggest difficulty in any emulation is? "When the exact behavior of the system to be emulated is not documented and has to be deduced through reverse engineering." That's from the Wikipedia article on emulation. It goes on to say, "if the emulator does not perform as quickly as the original hardware, the emulated software may run much more slowly than it would have on the original hardware, possibly triggering time interrupts that alter performance". Do you want those to happen to your mind?

    The whole dream of mind-uploading is about transcending the limits of your flesh (because, again, Transhumanism's just a new flavor of the same age-old Gnostic angelist millennarianism). But the human brain carries out trillions of operations every second; the rate of neuronal firing is estimated by neuroscientist Astra Bryant to be in the range "86 billion to 17.2 trillion" (gee, our knowledge of the brain's operation is so precise, mind-uploading can't be far off now!), while the rate of synaptic firing is in the range "100 trillion to 20 quadrillion" (for those playing along at home, that's a range 19.9 quadrillion wide). Pretending that one neuron or synapse firing is comparable to a single floating-point operation of a microprocessor (and it isn't), we're talking about 10.058643 petaFLOPS, which is pretty much at the limit of our technological capability. On average. The maximum—and remember, these are ball-park figures, the brain probably goes significantly higher when it has to, remember how many synapses there are, and the fact we haven't even gotten into glial cells—is 20.0172 petaflops, which is more than all but exactly one supercomputer, ever built, is capable of.

    And oh, by the way, that's just "floating point operations". It is, again, probably more realistic to map every cell and synapse as a single line of code—and there can be thousands, occasionally millions, of floating point operations in a single line of code. The very cutting edge of our technology is just barely adequate to the absolute most minimalistic representation of our brains; it falls stupefyingly short of more realistic modeling.