2014/04/15

Space Core II

I wanted to call this "Space Is the Place", but then I found out it's a racial-supremacist blaxploitation flick. (Seriously, read that summary, and imagine "black" and "white" switched. You familiar with the white-supremacist strain in 1970s "UFO religions"? It's not any different.)

Stuff about space. This is post 515, which is 103 × 5.
  • I redid that thought experiment about a fusion-rocket Blackbird—I was able to find more specific information about its mass-ratio. It turns out, an SR-71 Blackbird weighs 60,000 pounds without fuel, and its fuel weighs 84,180 pounds. That means it has a mass ratio of 2.364. If you built a magnetic-confinement fusion ship with that mass ratio, it'd get you up to 1.17% of the speed of light (assuming you like to stop at the end). And if your rocket engine is the same size as the Blackbird's (9 times as massive as the minimum size for an MC fusion engine), you get 168,750 newtons thrust. Unfortunately that can only accelerate a fully-loaded Blackbird at 5.35 m/s2, which comes to .545 g's.
  • Two other changes occasioned by my spin-gravity research. First, I think I might make the human "space fighters" (which are really parasite missile-ships launched from a mother ship) more like Orion-type ships, rather than the long skinny dragonfly-shaped design of most human ships. They'll probably replace the "big steel wall" pusher-plate with a magnetic field, though, proton-chain fusion involves a hell of a lot more energy than a hydrogen bomb. This lets them be a lot smaller than even the smallest Orion ship, since a major portion of the mass of those is the pusher-plate.

    Second, I'll need to figure out how to describe the distortions created, in the topology-sensors the zledo use, by artificial-gravity inertial protection (they bleed the force of accelerations into the surrounding space-time). I think, if they accelerate at 8 gs, their ship, or part of it, would seem to stretch eight-fold in the opposite direction. It occurs to me whenever I posit a technology like this, to worry about the environmental impacts—but there's plenty of asteroids thousands of times bigger than any ship, and the gravitational perturbations they cause are infinitesimal.
  • One of the articles I read about cats in free-fall had numberless comments (I think because it was a British site—maybe even a Daily Mail article?) about how "cruel" that was, and how if you want to study the effects of free-fall, you should study it on humans (yes, they ignored the fact there were humans free-falling right there with the cats—it was on the Vomit Comet, they didn't just turn the gravity off for the cats without becoming weightless themselves). But the point of studying free-fall's effects on cats is, humans do not have that kind of righting instinct. Cats do. You can no more use humans to study how that righting reflex works in free-fall than you can use them to study tails or retractable claws.

    Come to think of it, it was definitely a Daily Mail article; one of the other commenters was some idiot identifying the blatant, obvious, familiar-to-anyone-who's-seen-I Dream of Jeannie 1960s USAF uniforms as Soviet Army uniforms, and saying that this "inaccuracy" showed the Mail was making the whole story up. But, uh, mate? Aside from how, whoever did the film, there's free-falling cats clearly shown, 1960s Soviet uniforms were olive drab (Army) or black (Navy), not blue, and outside the Navy they had Sam Browne belts, with the shoulder strap, up till at least the Afghan war. They also had "peaked" hats (as your distorted, decadent dialect calls 'em, for no reason—a "peaked" hat would be pointed, if you mean "beaked" maybe you should say it), known in the civilized world as combination caps. The guys in the video in question were wearing "side caps", AKA garrison caps, AKA "flight caps", because they were freaking USAF officers. It's practically impossible to get the two confused, without actual effort.
  • Been looking into SSTO vehicles. When I switched it so none of my ships landed, I decided the Japanese guy's ship used an SSTO entry-vehicle as its habitat section—which, I find, is something that ought to be known as the "Kankômaru" type. The dimensions of mine are a bit different—it's smaller, and has several actual cabins, rather than an airline-type "theater seating" setup—but the principle is the same. I find the same thing was proposed by Chrysler in 1971, as the SERV ("Single-stage Earth-orbital Reusable Vehicle", which says "SSEORV" to me but whatever). The SERV was actually put forward as an alternate to the Space Shuttle. And not picked. Somehow.

    There's also the SASSTO ("Saturn Application Single-Stage to Orbit"), by Douglas, from NINETEEN SIXTY-SIX—it was claimed to be derived from Saturn rockets but basically the only way that's true is it could launch from the same facilities. From the same company, a quarter century later, we get the Delta Clipper, which in its final form as the DC-Y was supposed to be commercial spaceflight like grownups would have, with spaceports throughout the country and flights regulated by the FAA. Not to be, sadly.
  • SSTO ships are interesting, because they are ships with extremely high mass ratios and yet they accelerate at very high rates. The DC-I (an intermediate form of Delta Clipper, from the study) would accelerate at 11.34 m/s2, with a mass ratio of 13.05; a SASSTO would accelerate at 12.59 m/s2, with a mass ratio of 14.68; the SERV has 12.64 m/s2 and a mass ratio of 9. These are ships that land, too; you could almost certainly push the mass ratio even higher in vacuum. So, why, exactly, are we always being told to keep our mass ratios under 5 or 6 or so? Significantly higher ones can be sustained. Of course, there may be other reasons not to use that kind of mass ratio. I don't use it in my books (I go with the "under 5 or 6 or so" one) because the speeds my ships need, due to the time-frames involved, require proton-chain fusion rockets. And with a proton-chain fusion rocket, even a SERV's mass ratio of 9 gives you a cruising speed of 10.99% c! Sure, that gets you where you're going faster—but you have to circle the block a couple times to slow down.

    A back of the envelope calculation suggests the SERV's 12 toroidal aerospike engines probably massed 1400 kilos each, while each of its 28 turbojets could've massed a mere 320 kilos. That means that of its 226,757 and 1/3 kilo (dry) mass, 25,760 kilos is engine; if we assume a proton chain fusion rocket has performance on par with an Orion rocket, in terms of acceleration ("1 meganewton per megagram" optimum), then, even with the same mass of engine as a SERV, the ship would take over 30 days to get up to speed or drop down from it, and it also needs 574.87 AUs to do it. In other words, if the ship is at the mean orbital difference of Pluto? It has to circle the Solar System two and a third times to slow down. (At the current mass ratio, an engine like the SERV's—but twice as big, because that's the mass-ratio I use, 9/2 instead of 9—would only need 10.34 days to accelerate, but it'd still also need to circle the sun once partway between Uranus and Neptune's orbits, to accelerate to or from typical orbital speed for an Earth-sized planet.)

    See? Acceleration vs. delta-v is an essentially unsolvable conflict in spaceship engines. Whatever time you save increasing your Δv, you might well lose it back in the time it takes your engine to accelerate to that speed. Obviously, this doesn't matter for long-haul interstellar flights taking decades or centuries, where days, weeks, months or even years of acceleration make up a small component of the total time—but when your setting includes FTL it feels very inelegant for starting and stopping to be the longest part of any space-journey.
  • There is an idea in speculations about space-colonization, called the "Three Generation Rule", namely that the kind of discipline necessary to maintain a space habitat for longer than three generations, is beyond the grasp of "normal" human cultures. But...nobody Western or Westernized has a normal human culture. For the last nineteen and a half centuries or so, you've been involved in a mystical movement that tells you it's okay to relax, you can just worry about what you can fix, nobody blames you if you didn't mean to—your apologies actually mean something—and similar purely religious propositions. (Large portions of Asia have had this too, to a lesser degree but half a millennium longer.)

    Honestly, get off the reservations built for you by Christ and Buddha; at least look at the world through the eyes of an Orthodox Jew or a conservative Hindu. Better, go find some Neolithic subsistence-agriculturalist who lives in abject terror of saying or doing the wrong thing, intentionally or not, and ruining his luck. The Navajo are a good choice, there's a quarter million of 'em and their purity-code's been extensively studied. Traditionally, they will not build with driftwood or look at corpses or let dogs in their houses during storms or be in the same room as snakes or speak of the dead or dance with someone who has the same surname as any of their grandparents or play "cat's cradle" outside of winter; they live in one of two kinds of shelters, which they switch between at set points during the year, and they build them according to a strict geomantic formula and with every component strictly determined by ritual laws. That about the kind of discipline necessary to maintain a space-habitat? Well good news, everybody, that is "normal", historically and, even now, statistically, for the human race. Maybe that mindset can't build rockets—but they can definitely crew and maintain 'em, better than your precious "freedom-loving" Belters ever could.

    Alternatively, the fact that you need to adopt a Neolithic purity-code mindset to safely maintain a space-habitat, might be an excellent justification to have future space-colonies, in defiance of Tsiolkovsky, Heppenheimer, O'Neill, Niven, and all the rest, living primarily on planets, rather than in artificial habitats. Because no sane person, having been freed from the purity-code, voluntarily goes back to it—it's just too much damn trouble. That's why "neo-pagans" have about as much in common with historical paganism as William Stukely.
  • The "4% a year" number, considered to be the likely rate of increase of the population of space, is also the average of the growth of Australia's non-aboriginal population since 1787. It's harder to track the population of the Americas, since the English colonies didn't have extensive censusing and there's no legitimate reason to restrict the French or Spanish ones to non-aboriginals—but it's practically impossible to track all the Indians' populations (plus, you get negative growth, thanks to epidemics). The peculiar character of Australia's colonial history makes it a more convenient model of space-colonization, in quite a lot of ways—not only are the numbers easier to find but the actual setup of the Australian colony was more like what you'd see in space, than any of the New World colonizations (or Africa, for that matter).
  • I have a feeling that, given the average hydrogen atom in a star survives for millions of years before ever undergoing fusion, the proton-chain fusion rockets in my books are probably actually catalyzed by the CNO cycle, as Bussard recommended for his eponymous ramjets. Only my rocket engines do not simply slam the stuff they're fusing into a funnel at relativistic speed, they compress it with a combination of magnetic fields and an application of the direct topological gravity-control. I think, thus, that the full name of the system would be "CNO-catalyzed topological confinement proton chain fusion". I think they just call it "proton-chain fusion" rather than, say, CCTCPCF, or (with some liberal sprinkling of hyphens and a liberal interpretation of "hyphenatin makes it one word instead of two") CTPF.

2014/04/11

The Spin Stops Here

Because I'm not going with rotational gravity after all. (And because Bill O'Reilly's lawyers need some exercise.)

In the paper I got the idea of metric-patching from, objects inside a ship with a metric-patching engine are described as accelerating with it, "in a weightless state of free fall", which presumably means that they retain their ordinary inertia relative to the ship's frame (basically, the ship has become the sole "geodesic" reference frame with any meaning directly relevant to its occupants). It might be possible to induce a topology, within the spherical frame of the ship, that causes directional acceleration for the occupants—true artificial gravity—even while the metric-patching is active. Presumably it uses a very different topology than a non-metric patching ship's artificial gravity; it'd probably also not be a function of the metric-patching, but an independently created effect.

Still, the speculation was useful, in that it got me thinking about zled ships' layout and dimensions. It made me figure out how much volume it takes to hold a given collection of missiles and parasite craft...and large predators. Eventually I get a ship with a diameter of 61.49 meters, which sounds tiny till you crunch the numbers and notice that means a volume of 121,723.57 m3. It masses about 8,100 megagrams. Its parasite-craft are 7.12 meters in diameter, while its entry vehicles are 8.21. I get the volume numbers and masses by comparing the mass and volume (usually fudged a bit) of real-world craft, compared to the volume of my ships; I'm keeping some of 'em close to the chest but I will say the entry vehicle is approximately the volume of Virgin Galactic's "Spaceship Two"—since it's an 8-seater space-plane.

2014/04/09

De Romanicorum Theoriarum VII

Thoughts on speculative fiction. Mostly science fiction but there's a couple about fantasy.

513 is 33 × 19, which makes it a Harshad number in base-10 (numbers divisible by the sum of their digits; 5+1+3=9).
  • You know the super-robot anime trope of the person that stands in the giant robot's hand? Well, I did some computing of the minimum size for a palm to support a person. Minimum standing area for a person is .6 meters, or 6.46 square feet, or a square 77.46 centimeters or 30.5 inches on a side. The area of the human palm is .5% of the surface area of the body, and the average surface area of a male human body is 1.9 square meters, or 20.45 square feet. .05% of that is 95 square centimeters (.0095 square meters), or 14.73 square inches (which is also .1023 square feet). Dividing 20.45 by .1023 (the area ratio of "standing space" to "palm area"), we get 24.85—so a figure with palms large enough to stand on must have 24.85 times the area of a human body. Area varies as the square of single dimensions, so the minimum size for a giant robot to have someone stand on its palms (the square root of 24.85=)4.985 times the height of an average human male. The average human male (globally) is 68 inches or 172.7 centimeters tall, and 4.985 times that is 28 feet, 3 inches, or 8.61 meters. Assuming the approximate density of automotive magnesium alloy, which again makes an average man mass 119 kilograms instead of 70, the robot will mass 14,746.18 kg, or 16 short tons, 509.8 lbs.
  • I know I've mentioned that the "thieves' guilds" and "mages' guilds" in a lot of fantasy RPGs, aren't really guilds. The mages' ones at least do have apprenticeships, which most thieves don't, but prospective members don't need to submit a masterwork to get in and they very rarely offer insurance.

    It's worse in computer RPGs, where the "guild" is the thing through which professionals are hired (guilds didn't do that—again, you don't contact the ADA when you're looking for a dentist) and they seldom even organize around a particular craft. That's no kind of a guild. (They're also not anything like an "order"—the "Order of the Stick" is not a vowed lay or monastic brotherhood, military or otherwise, therefore it should be called something else.) No, what the adventurer-group in a computer RPG is, and what many little bands of adventurers in the tabletop games often are, is basically similar to the mercenary companies of the late Medieval period and after, albeit with more sua sponte work and in more fields than the purely military.

    I personally hate the convention of actually referring to the adventurers, in-world, as "adventurers". "Adventurer" is a word with very bad connotations—it's something along the lines of "bounder". Plus, nobody actually doing the things would regard them as "adventures". "Explorer" is probably closer, given what they do (and their dungeon-delvings, thus, are "explorations"); if one wanted to highlight the similarities to mercenary companies, I suggest something like "contractors", or some synonym (the actual literal meaning of "condottiero" is "one who conducts [war]", much like calling a mortician an "undertaker [of embalming]").
  • Of course, I realize as I write that, the underlying objection is that I don't like RPGs that feel like games ("I don't want dreams where it feels like I'm dreaming"). So, for instance, I dislike most recent fantasy anime and manga, since the characters all but talk about literally leveling up and having hit points. Fairy Tail, and the many series that are obviously knockoffs of Fairy Tail, would be the prime offender there (meanwhile, Lodoss War doesn't do it, despite having originally been an actual transcribed D&D campaign).

    This, along with their PC bullshit and chronological blackface minstrelsy, is why I can't get behind Pathfinder (well, that, and I prefer 3.0E to 3.5E...and also their new classes fix what wasn't broken, if your DM is remotely competent). The "Pathfinder Society" of the core setting is a loathsome anachronism on par with light novels inserting the godforsaken Japanese school system into everything, even post-apocalyptic anarchies and trans-human societies that live on Dyson spheres. (It's also a transparent knockoff of the Traveller's Aid Society, except that that has a right to exist, in a science fiction setting.)
  • Might give the khângây handheld coilguns, after all, instead of electrothermal-chemical. Coilguns (or Gauss guns) don't have the issues railguns do, namely needing a hugely long barrel. A quick survey of the web with my peerless Google-fu reveals an approximate equivalency between total muzzle energy and the power requirements of the coilgun, so it doesn't need weird little slivers at hyper-velocity, it can just use regular bullets and normal muzzle energies. Actually think I'll call theirs "quench guns", which is the term for superconducting coilguns (even though the khângây model probably uses "hot" superconductors, they're usually still pretty cold—"hot" is relative to "below 30 Kelvin", which is what metal superconductors need).

    Still torn as to whether I ought to call the ones the humans use—that rotate between barrels to save wear on the components?—"coil vulcans" or "Gauss vulcans". The former seems more technical; the latter has more of a science-fictional pedigree. Then again, avoiding the science-fictional term and saying something else (not "holograms", "volumetric displays"; not "cyborg limbs", "prosthetic enhancements") is how I roll—because you want people to look at the thing, not their memory of tropes about the thing—so I guess "coil vulcans" it is. Then again "vulcan" is itself a science-fictional term, for what would probably be more correctly called a "Gatling autocannon" or "minigun" (depending on caliber)—but it's primarily used in Japanese science fiction, so my English-language audience wouldn't have too many tropes associated with it.
  • In light of the extreme energies possible by putting explosives in one's rounds, I'm upgrading zled high-end powered armor (as used by their regular military rather than civilian emergency levies) to STANAG 4569 Level 4—it had been 3, I compared it to a Russian VPK-3927 Volk (pronounced as it's spelled, not with an F—it's the Slavic word for "wolf"), which is basically a hardened Humvee. But now I'm upgrading their armor to the level of a Matador MRAP. Of course, since the armor is "adaptive" rather than using static mechanical qualities (otherwise it would be either really dense or too bulky to move in), a whole lot of energy packed into half a millisecond and a circle the same diameter as a pin's head—a laser—can punch through too fast for the structure to "adapt". I think several of the humans' armor-piercing explosive rounds, in rapid succession, can also dish out more energy than the armor can cope with, but for one-hit kills humans still need anti-tank grenades.
  • Speaking of STANAG 4569, I can't believe I've neglected to mention (although I've made oblique references) that a major form of "K-Mart Realism" in my SF is that things are referred to by their ISO designation, if they have one. Prolog, the computer language, is ISO 13211; Unicode, the character-encoding standard, is ISO 10646. There doesn't seem to be an ISO standard for vehicle armor, but personal armor is ISO 14876; I imagine that the ISO of the 24th century will have a vehicle-armor standard, but I'm not gonna say what its number is. Those numbers aren't random, but their system is crazy hard to figure out. It's entirely likely it'd incorporate a (technologically updated) version of STANAG 4569, a lot of ISO standards are just various American or European standards given a new name.

    This is a thing I prefer to do: when there's already a real thing for it, go with the real thing. The UN's space agency in my books is the Office for Outer Space Affairs, because that's what the UN's space agency is called. The UN's military are the Peacekeepers, because that's what the UN's military is called (it doesn't quite work the same way as now, of course—national armies are more like the "national cadres" in the Soviet Army). The UN's court is the International Court of Justice, and its police are the UNPOL (yeah, they just call 'em "UN Police"—look at it this way, they didn't waste time coming up with a name on the world's taxpayers' dime).
  • Decided to change most of the Chinese in my books to Mandarin, although I still like the sound of Cantonese better. I discovered something while I was doing it: Mandarin has no lateral/post-alveolar consonants (the "sh" in English). It has palatal ones (the "sh" from Japanese), and retroflex ones (the "sz" in Polish, or like the ř in Dvořák—actually the "r" in many dialects of English, including the main American and Canadian ones, is a retroflex approximant, which is weird for a Western European language), but no laterals. Cantonese has them, including the approximant (the "ll" in Welsh) in the Taishan dialect, but no retroflex ones. (Is my preference for Cantonese's sounds in part because I can pronounce them? Your guess is as good as mine.)

    I took another look at Mandarin's sounds because I was thinking "it has no phonemic voicing—b, d, and g are actually pronounced as p, t, and k, which in turn are used to write the aspirated versions of themselves—so what are j, z, and zh?" The answer is "the 'ch' in Japanese, 'ts', and 'the unvoiced retroflex affricate' (basically t + the sound of Polish 'sz')", respectively. C, in case you wondered, is "aspirated 'ts'", sh is "the sound of Polish 'sz'", ch is "aspirated unvoiced retroflex affricate", q is "aspirated 'ch' from Japanese", and x is "the 'sh' from Japanese". Pinyin Romanization felt itself free to use unorthodox interpretations of the Roman alphabet, repurposing redundant letters much as the ancient Greeks turned Phoenician consonants Greek didn't have into the first vowels in any alphabet, ever.
  • Turns out, I was wrong. Cats adapt fast to free-fall conditions. I don't know why I didn't search "cats zero-g" before. But apparently, after a brief time when they have no idea what to do, they, like mice and squirrels, just behave normally. Maybe having a much more finely-tuned balance system means they can learn to adapt to free-fall more quickly.

    This means zled ships can use rotation gravity—which is good, because realistically you probably can't have topology artificial-gravity inside the metric-patching field. The minimum diameter to produce 1.08 Gs (1 G if you're a zled) is 241.449997 meters (yes, I calculated it to the micron), which means the smallest zled ship would be, essentially, a Bernal sphere. The O'Neill Island One has, after all, a radius of 250 m. If we want all of it to have basically the same gravity, limiting ourselves to a rotating band 20 degrees wide, centered on a great circle of the sphere, seems reasonable. On the minimum-diameter sphere, it has a surface-area of 114,650 square meters—which is 28.3 acres, or a bit over a quarter the area of Vatican City.

    The real trouble with rotation gravity is figuring out how to synch up non-spinning things that dock with the ship with the spin of the spinning part. My calculations say I can probably do it with an elevator as long as the radius of the ship, accelerating all along its length at almost exactly half a zled gravity, but I wonder if I'm not missing something. The rotation even of the big one (909 m in diameter) is still 69.3808 meters per second, which is 249.771 kilometers per hour (or 155.2 miles). Then again the Earth's surface is moving a lot faster than that (depending on your latitude—at the equator, 1/1440 rpm translates to a tangential velocity of 463.8 m/s, 1,669.76 kph, or 1037.54 mph), so maybe it's not a problem? Maybe it can be compared to aerial refueling, and that routinely happens at 315 knots (which is 583.38 kph or 362.5 mph).
  • Speaking of the speed the Earth rotates, the tangential velocity varies by latitude. The circumference of a circle that passes through, say, 28°31′26.61″N, 80°39′3.06″W, is approximately 35,237.49 kilometers (the circle of the equator is 40,075), meaning that its tangential velocity is 407.84 m/s, 1,468.23 kph, or 912.32 mph. That's why space-launches are always toward the east—it takes 408 m/s off the speed the rocket has to accelerate to by its own power. Escape velocity for the Earth is 11,200 m/s, so launching eastward grants a 3.6% savings. That's nothing to sneeze at in rocketry.

2014/03/20

Survival Strategy

Or in Japanese, "Seizon Senryaku!"

It seemed an appropriate title for a combination exobiology and military SF post. "Listen up, you lowlifes who will never amount to anything!"

Incidentally, the kanji for "seizon senryaku" are 生存戦略. It's quite literally "survival" and "strategy", I'm guessing it's a deliberate calque.
  • Been thinking, if I double the energy output of zled lasers and increase their aperture to 3 centimeters instead of 2 (or close to—they don't make things in nice round numbers of our units, because they're freaking aliens), I apparently double the effective range(s, given that laser effectiveness varies by target material). It would just require twice as much spring (maybe in two separate coils?), with a total mass of 512 grams. That's comparable energy to 7.62 NATO, and 16 rounds of that weighs 408 grams.

    And you simply can't use 7.62 NATO in a pistol; not and get anything like proper twist out of your rifling. And the kick would be most unpleasant, in a firearm-pistol as opposed to a laser one, given 3200 Joules is on par with the most powerful magnum revolver rounds, the ones used primarily for hunting, and only found in a self-defense role in bear country. Appropriate, given zled cops have to deal with people the size of black bears in their professional duties. (And 16 rounds of .460 S&W Magnum weighs 508 grams.)
  • Khângây weapons haven't shown up yet (I'm currently majorly reworking my third book's plot), but I think when they do they'll either be handheld mini-railguns shooting small projectiles—"sliver" or "needle" guns, as they're often known—or else, "ETC liquid" (electrothermal chemical) propelled. Leaning toward that second one, since railguns' length and barrel-longevity is something of a deal-breaker. Not sure if there'll be separate liquid-propellant reservoirs attached to each round of ammunition, or a single reservoir that meters out the same amount of propellant, each time a round is chambered. The high temperatures involved mean their weapons are probably made of super-materials.

    It seems culturally appropriate, since the khângây are a race of artists and artisans, so they have a tendency to pursue intriguing technologies, sometimes without much reference to their immediate battlefield feasibility. They also have a much smaller military than either the zledo or even the humans, and "splurging" on equipment is the kind of thing affluent societies with small militaries do, e.g. the Japanese Self-Defense Forces. I imagine that while their weapon-manufacturing might be part of a clan's exclusive intellectual property (remember, they're like a potlatch culture), armor manufacturing, while closely guarded, would come under the heading of "safety information", and thus be public-domain. At least to the point that a faction whose armor-tech is stolen by a competitor doesn't have a legal grievance (there's no requirement to actively publicize armor-tech, of course).

    See, they don't regard things directly relevant to the preservation of life as being subject to intellectual property; all clans share things like medical knowledge and disaster-reports freely. Their major modern religion, also (unlike their older ones, which were one-to-a-tribe affairs), regards its teachings as relevant to safety—albeit of souls—and thus as public domain (I imagine, thus, that khângây physicians are disproportionately monks).
  • You know you're a science fiction writer when you see a slashfic based on your work and your first objection is, "Kzinti don't have external genitalia" (apparently that was Niven's reaction). But have you figured out whether your aliens do? And if so, what? Aside from the fact that you simply need to work out at least a rough outline of how your aliens work in that regard, there will almost certainly be cultural-setting implications to whichever particular structure you actually go with. My advice, as in all things, is to mix and match non-mammal, non-vertebrate, and even non-animal systems, till you get something interesting.

    Zledo, for instance, don't urinate (neither do birds), so their intromittent organ (which is external) doesn't do double-duty as part of the excretory system. Their sex-organs aren't even part of a "cloaca" (unlike birds, where the penis, if present, is part of the cloacal wall—species that don't have a penis, which is 97% of them, just use their cloaca for the purpose—and whatever the male's anatomy does, the cloaca serves as the female's genitalia, instead of a specialized vagina). In that respect the zled genital system is actually more like that of a cephalopod, with reproductive organs that have nothing to do with the excretory system (the cephalopod excretory system seems, for some weird reason, to involve both a urinary tract and an anus; most marine life doesn't even bother with uric acid—excreting which, instead of urea, is the reason diapsids don't pee—and instead just excretes ammonia directly).

    RE: Cultural setting implications, among other things, the fact that our reproductive organs are also part of our waste-elimination system is the basis of a great number of zled insults for humans.
  • Aeons ago, I mentioned that zledo (not yet identified as such in the blog) have Z0 sex-chromosomes (the male has two Z chromosomes, the female has only one, with no partial chromosome like a human male or a bird female—a system used only by a few butterflies, on Earth; the opposite, where the female has two and the male only one, is called X0, and is used by grasshoppers, crickets, and cockroaches, among other things).

    Well, did I ever mention that the gamete-growing organs and the sex-hormone organs are distinct, although the former grow from the latter? The testes and ovaries grow from the hormone glands; they have four of them. The ovaries and hormone gland are at the back of the uterus, rather than beside it and connected by a fallopian tube, and the specific ovary that ovulates actually becomes the placenta and amniotic sac(-analogues) when fertilized, and the whole thing is expelled at birth. (An ovary and its embryo, together, is basically what "fruit" is, except with extra things to aid in the spread of seeds—also there isn't a precise analog to the placenta, flowering plants actually use a second embryo for that, which is freaky.)

    Part of what that means is that female zledo regrow multiple ovaries throughout their lives (they can have more than four children in a lifetime), and males can regrow testes lost to injury (if their hormone-gland isn't also injured).
  • Did some checking. Apparently each round of 6.8 Remington SPC (assuming 7.45 gram bullets) uses 1.944 grams of propellant. Supposing you replaced the nitrocellulose propellant with octanitrocubane, as is used by Peacekeeper guns in my books, you get (42% of 1.944=)816 milligrams of propellant per round. Caseless means we don't have to add any extra weight for brass. Assume a 60 round casket magazine, empty, weighs 192 grams (it wouldn't quite weigh twice what the 30-round one weighs—the 30-round one doesn't weigh 1.5 times what the 20-round was, and 192 is the number I get when I plug "in the proportion of the real weight-difference to 1.5", then multiply it by "117×2"). We can say that, for the weight of the standard seven magazines carried by a US Army soldier (210 rounds, each magazine weighing 483 grams, for a grand total of 3381 grams of full magazines), a 24th-century Peacekeeper can carry 5 magazines—and gets 10/7 the ammunition, 300 rounds vs. 210, with fewer pauses to reload. The consideration in the pistol rounds, incidentally, is not mass, but simply the length of the grip and its ability to accept the rounds. Using octanitrocubane instead of nitrocellulose, though, would reduce the propellant load from 460 milligrams to a mere 193.2 milligrams.
  • Incidentally, given the theoretical density of octanitrocubane—2.06 g/cm3 (the slightly lower density usually listed is the actually-achieved one, remember that we can't yet get it to form even as dense as heptanitrocubane)—the 816 milligrams of propellant in the rifle round has a volume of 396.117 cubic millimeters. Treating the 7 millimeter-diameter by 31 millimeter-length bullet as a cylinder, and assuming the propellant "casing" has the same diameter as the brass one (10.7 mm), we discover that the propellant "casing" only has a length of 17.67 millimeters (the casing volume minus the bullet volume equals 396.117, casing diameter is given, solve for casing height). The "casing" sticks out 1.85 millimeters from the bullet, and goes 15.82 millimeters up its sides (assuming uniform propellant thickness in back, too). Hence, I guess, they call it "6.8 × 18 mm". Maybe "7 × 18 mm", I don't know where that "6.8" business comes from, 'cause those bullets (6.8 SPC uses the same ones as .270 Winchester) are 7.0 millimeters diameter exactly.

    193.2 milligrams of octanitrocubane has a volume of 93.786 cubic millimeters. Again, treating a 9 millimeter-diameter by 16 millimeter-length (JHP) bullet as a cylinder, and a "casing" diameter of 10.77 millimeters, we get 12.20 millimeters as the "casing" length. The propellant "casing" has a thickness of .885 millimeters, and goes (again, uniform thickness in back) 11.32 millimeters up the sides of the bullet. So I guess they call it "9 × 12 mm"? Notice these rounds are much shorter than their cased equivalents—the rifle round is only 32.85 millimeters long, compared to 6.8 Remington SPC's 58.8 millimeters, and the pistol round is only 16.89 millimeters compared to .357 SIG's 28.96. I imagine they use the extra room for a coolant-reservoir (the battery for the electronic firing is set into the base of the magazine)—no casings to eject means there's nowhere for the chamber's heat to go.
  • While I'm describing the precise dimensions of my propellants (I think they also have a tiny amount of a bonding agent that holds them to the bullets and controls the burn-rate, and are also painted to designate what type of bullet is being used, e.g. red for explosive-tipped), I'm having a real hard time figuring out what they smell like. Seriously, I have found exactly one reference to what octanitrocubane would smell like, and (apart from a joke about Cuban cigars), it's "probably a bit like camphor". No basis for this is given, but a man in my position grasps any straw he can.

    The smell, of course, is important, because what's a gunfight without the smell of gunpowder or nitrocellulose (often erroneously referred to as "cordite")? But apparently 24th century gunfights smell quite different, though. I imagine the cops busting into a house because they thought they smelled gunshots—but no, man, it's just Hindus performing puja! "Every time we have a gunfight, I get hungry for pork-chops afterward. If we don't make peace with these rival gangs soon, I'm gonna need to invest in a whole new set of pants." (Rosemary has camphor in it.)
  • The khângây being able to see near-UV, and thus also distinguish ten times as many shades as creatures that only have three color bands, are, as I said, a race of artists and artisans. Part of it is that they say there are 30-35 "main" colors, instead of just six or seven (the seven, again, are red, orange, yellow, green, azure, blue, and purple—or you may regard azure and blue as the same color, or call azure "blue" and blue "indigo"; if you're Asian you consider green and blue to both be shades of azure; you also might call purple "violet"). Notice I said 30-35, not 60-70? Yeah, well, actually, only three colors in English are even named for themselves, rather than for things that are their color.

    Think about it. What's orange? A fruit (its Old English name was "yellow-red", look it up). What's green? A formation of the same root as "growing" and "grass", it actually means "flourishing plants", that's not just a connotation of the word. What's azure? A rock. What's violet? A flower. What's indigo? A dye. So is purple. No, the only words that can even partly be considered to actually mean the color they describe, are red, yellow, and blue—we weren't just calling them primaries 'cause of paint. (There's something similar in Japanese—the only colors that are adjectives instead of derivations from nouns, are black, white, red, and azure. Yellow, orange, and purple are named after gold, bitter oranges, and the purple gromwell, and pink, brown, and green are named after peaches, tea, and melons.)

    Khângây cultures have ten times as many words for colors that actually mean the colors themselves, which, if we assume ten times as many as a typical human language, is about 20-40, not counting black and white (and they presumably have ten words that mean "gray" plus dozens for things like "gunmetal" and "mouse"). Then they also derive ten times as many specific shades from other sources as we do. I imagine that being around colored objects made by humans and zledo probably sets their teeth on edge (if their jaws could do that, which they can't—technically they don't even have teeth), with slight variations in shade that we don't even notice, but that make them feel like they're in the "before" segment of a detergent ad.
  • Mention of khângây teeth, or lack thereof, reminds me that I redid their biting/chewing anatomy. Instead of beak-like horn structures, but shaped like canid teeth, inside their lips, they now have bone plates with sharp cutting surfaces, like those of the armored-jaw fish (still inside their lips). Their "biting plates" have a horn-like coating, like a bird beak, which continually regrows as it's worn down. The horn is in the same color as the feathers of whichever ethnic group the khângây belongs to.

    I had had the males have brighter-colored plumage than the females, but I can't think of any species with a similar mating structure to khângây that have that. Most of the brightly-colored birds that mate for life—parrots, mostly, although blue-jays (being predators) are probably a closer parallel—have indistinguishable plumage between the sexes. I might just decide to have the sex be determinable by build (they give live birth and have big brains, so their females' anatomy has adaptations for that).
  • It's fascinating how many common criticisms of things are just unintelligent retreads of each other. I've talked before about the people who say walking mecha won't work because walking uses too much power...thus demonstrating they have never seen a mecha anime or they'd know they usually roll on good terrain. Another one is the people who yammer on and on about how military science fiction is stuck in the Cold War—and then talk as if it's self-evident that the wars of space-faring civilizations would be genocidal affairs that kill billions.

    Newsflash: war did not cease in the Cold War. It just got much smaller and tidier. The whole thing we learned from the end of the Cold War is that the whole idea of Total War is, like racism and women as legal minors, an incredibly stupid assumption of the Renaissance and Enlightenment that intelligent people would never have adopted, or resurrected, in the first place. "The only time it's worth killing your enemy is if you kill everyone like him" is an idea exclusive to the modern era; Attila the Hun and Genghis Khan would have regarded it as blasphemously bloodthirsty.

    The "every war is a war for race-survival (not to say Lebensraum)" trope in science fiction is not merely pre-end-of-the-Cold War, it is demonstrably just a hangover from World War II—or even from the 19th-century ideologies that brought about World War II. Do try to at least catch up to the point where eugenics has been discredited, women can vote, and there's black people at the diner, hmm?

2014/03/14

Rannm Thawts Three

Just what you see here.
  • Having Neil deGrasse Tyson host a Cosmos reboot is a stroke of genius. I was actually wondering, "How will you make Cosmos without Carl Sagan's smug unwarranted self-congratulation and laughably false hagiographic presentation of the history of science?" But Tyson fits the bill nicely.

    Well, except that his achievements make Sagan look like Niels Bohr. Sagan may only have contributed as much to science as the average state-university astronomy professor, but that is at least real research, and every single pebble-pusher in the trenches has a part to play. Tyson? I searched him on Google Scholar and so far haven't found a single thing authored by him that's not a glorified press release (I suppose "essay", if we're being polite) about how awesome Science™ is, or else about how some particular policy in Science™ is just the only tenable solution (e.g. RE: Pluto).

    Real research-papers have long, abstruse titles like "ATP sulfurylase from filamentous fungi: which sulfonucleotide is the true allosteric effector?"; Tyson's all have punchy, marketer-friendly storybook titles like "The Planet that Never Was" or "Death by Black Hole".
  • In the original Gundam, Earth and Zeon are supposed to have lost half of their populations "in the war's first month alone". Now, this is one of those settings where apocryphal population apocalypses are taken at face-value, and UC 0079 is something like AD 2131, so there would be well over ten billion people on Earth (and a single O'Neill cylinder can hold up to ten million people, and each "Side" consists of several cylinders).

    Which raises the question, "How is the Earth still habitable?" Anything that could kill billions in a month would have to involve nukes or something comparable. Nothing else—certainly not tanks, which is all mobile suits are—could kill at anything like that rate. Even assuming Nazi-like death-camps (six, in a faction controlling 4.3% of the Earth's territory, killing at a rate of 1.5 million annually, or 250,000 each per year), and Zeon control over the entire Earth's land-area (I assume the Feddies aren't killing many of their own people), with the same amount of death-camps per unit area as the Nazis, you still only kill 5,813,953 people per year. Killing even one billion would take 172 years; half the world's current population would take 602 years. Killing 1 billion people in one month means killing 10% of the current US population, or one whole Canada or Uganda, every 24 hours. Killing 3.5 billion people in a month would involve killing off the entire French-speaking population of Africa every day, and UC 0079 Earth almost certainly has more people than 2014 Earth. Can you think of a way to do that without rendering large portions of the planet uninhabitable?

    Of course, the whole idea that the world lost half its population is ignored for the whole rest of the series. Very little of the Earth has been rendered uninhabitable, very few cities are shown to have been completely abandoned; people after the war do not live in squalor and technological stagnation (a certain minimum population-base is necessary for progress, because with lower populations people who might otherwise be innovating are occupied with more routine tasks). Also, nobody even suggests genociding the Zeon people or even executing their entire leadership, which is what would absolutely happen to an aggressor who lost a war that killed half the human race. Apparently nobody at Sunrise knew how close their country came to getting either treatment, and the war they were the aggressor in only killed 1.5% of the world's population (their theater of it, anyway).
  • There's people coming up with makeup to foil facial-recognition software. There's people 3d printing plastic guns that don't set off metal detectors (presumably their ammo still would). There's several other petulant anti-surveillance gestures, all by people who seem to think they're actually engaged in meaningful political acts. But the net result? Massively more inconvenience and degradation, plus more expense to upgrade the equipment. You've made guns that can get through metal detectors (though they're not very good guns)? Then they're just going to have to ascertain that you're unarmed the old-fashioned way. I'm pretty sure at this point the best use for your 3d printed gun is as a dietary supplement, if you take my meaning.

    I mean, seriously. Most facial-recognition software is not used by automated systems. It's used by security guards, separated from the people the software checks by a Formica counter. If you have makeup that foils the software? Well, first, one of the guards nudges his co-worker, and says, "Hey, this dude's not showing up on the software." Then he comes around the Formica counter, and as everyone behind you in the line curses you for the delay you're causing, the guard approaches you. "Sir," he says, "please come with me." He proceeds to lead you toward the back room, pulling on an elbow-length latex glove as he goes.

    What a mighty blow for civil liberties and human dignity that was! You're a damn folk hero!
  • In my setting, the oldest space-station colonies are Stanford tori (which are a specific type of Von Braun habitat ring). Later colonies, after the invention of actual topological-distortion artificial gravity, don't have a geometry derived from a need to rotate. But I had been unclear as to what shape they would have; I had rather vaguely supposed something like a Bernal sphere or O'Neill Island (which they still didn't need for their space-dwelling population by the time they invented topo-gravity), presumably with the topo-gravity making them stick to the "walls" without the thing having to spin. But that, too, is a design based around rotation, and I despise SF designs whose form does not follow their function.

    So, I decided, the newer colonies would be, like the ships, oriented essentially like a tower. But since a space-station has no need to minimize mass, since it's not going anywhere, and one wants to maximize the area so it can fit a lot of population (and have room to breathe—long-term confinement in ship-like conditions would result in lots of crazy colonists), I figured it might be roughly saucer-shaped, or possibly mushroom-shaped, with a long shaft of various machinery (presumably a bunch of generators, for one thing) and a flat, somewhat bulbous habitat section on the "top". I imagine them looking something like the Kûkai Foundation from Xenosaga, except that I am not fond of windows on space-structures; or, come to think of it, like the Starbases in the pre-reboot Star Trek movies (which are probably the most realistic Star Trek structure).
  • Remember how I said zledo can hear the auroras? Well, I found out what that would sound like. A lot of the "aurora borealis sounds" you can find, are actually how the magnetic field of an aurora is received by radio, but there are recordings of the actual sounds that are statistically correlated with auroras (although it's apparently not proved that that's their origin).

    Anyway, it sounds like this. The buzzing is just the air around the microphone, but that sharp, glassy *crack*? That is associated with the aurora. I imagine it makes the more high-strung among the zledo very jumpy, especially when they orbit BY Draconis variables, which have so much sunspot activity their variation in brightness is detectable from Earth. It would be like having a star with an incessant bubblegum habit.
  • An old name for the Hopi is "Moqui". Now, it's usually said this cannot be a Hopi name, because in Hopi, "moqui" (or rather "mooki") means "dead", cf. "miqui" in Nahuatl. But the Hopi take their religious law—adherence to which is what makes them "rightly-ordered", hopi—from the Fire Clan, and the Fire Clan are the chosen clan of the god Masauwu, the Skeleton, god of death (and cosmic order). So it is actually possible that "dead" was once a term they applied to themselves. (Masauwu is probably the Aztec Mictlantecuhtli, "lord of the place of the dead".)
  • The Urheimat of the Uto-Aztecan languages, I just had occasion to look up, is either roughly in the Sonoran Desert region (so the O'odham, for example, probably still live in the ancestral locale), or, according to the minority view, actually in Mesoamerica. The evidence for the former seems to have to do with the vocabulary relating to foraging; the latter assumes a corn-growing culture that brought its agricultural knowledge north.

    I'm not sure what would be the precise locale involved in the second hypothesis; my knowledge of this language group and its cultures drops off sharply between the American Southwest and the Valley of Mexico. The Corachol branch, it looks like, from the map ("Cora" and "Huichol" being the two that are listed, apparently their branch's name was formed on the same basis as tabloid celebrity-couple portmanteaux). I know precisely nothing about them! (Well, I know they probably have agglutinating grammar and mark plurals by reduplicating initial syllables, but that's just tantamount to saying "I know they're Uto-Aztecan speakers".)
  • Speaking of Mesoamerican languages, there is quite a big gap between Ch'orti', spoken in Guatemala and Honduras, and the Chontal and Ch'ol languages, spoken in Tabasco and Chiapas (in Mexico), respectively—all the Mayan languages in between are in completely different branches of the language-group. Why the geographic gap? Well...Ch'orti' happens to be a direct descendant of the language we usually call Classic Mayan—so-called because it's the language used by all Mayan inscriptions (even the ones written by speakers of other kinds of Mayan, like how a lot of medieval German writing was in Latin). It sorta seems that the Tabascan and Chiapan Maya adopted the scholarly language as their own, at some point.

    Incidentally, the word in most of those languages for "speaker" is "yoko". The word in Chontal, specifically, for a speaker of Chontal Maya? "Yoko t'an". I think (I can't find a direct translation for "t'an") it means something like "clear speaker", i.e., we can understand these people, because they talk our language, unlike those babbling barbarians from other places. Interestingly, that's what the word "nahuatl" means, and those who don't speak Nahuatl are nonoalcah, "deaf-mutes", they can neither speak nor hear Nahuatl words. There are words like "yoko t'an" in many other Mayan languages; it may well be the closest thing to a collective term for "Mayan people" that there is ("Maya" is pretty much used only by the Yucatec and Itza'). Apparently "Yucatan" is actually an ethnonym, not a toponym, although then again "land of a particular people" is a very common way of naming places, the world over.

2014/03/08

De Advenae Vitae III

Speculative life-stuff. Mostly biochemistry, a bit about alien culture occasioned by a scientific discovery that's relevant to their biology.
  • Had been thinking I might have the thoikh be nitrogen-fixers. Maybe do that and breathe oxygen, instead of in lieu of it; it's entirely possible they could have mechanisms to sequester their nitrogenase(-analog) from O2. One of the major nitrogen-fixing bacteria is also photosynthetic, meaning its cells produce oxygen; either the same or a different one is protected by a kind of hemoglobin produced by the plants it's symbiotic with, that transports oxygen away from the tissues rather than to them. The reason they might still breathe oxygen is because nitrogen-fixation takes energy, which the bacteria that do it photosynthesize for.

    Whether the thoikh fix nitrogen in lieu of aerobic respiration, or in addition to it, they would probably exhale ammonia (possibly along with CO2 if they also breathe oxygen). It's a gas at room temperature (the stuff you clean with is actually a water-solution, like CO2 in soda). Presumably plants on the thoikh homeworld use gaseous ammonia, rather than absorbing it through their roots. But them exhaling ammonia made me realize two problems with the idea, so I probably won't go with it. The first is that zledo and to a lesser extent khângây couldn't stand to be around anyone that exhaled ammonia, they both have very strong senses of smell. And the second is that C. J. Cherryh's kif smell strongly of ammonia, and the thoikh were already pale gray, sepulchral, and wrapped in dark robes—too similar by far.

    But nitrogen-fixation for aliens, as an accompaniment or substitute for oxygen respiration, is a cool idea, just one I can't use because I can't wedge it in.
  • The recent kerfuffle about "the gender binary" in science fiction, got me thinking. As far as I know, all attempts to portray an alien species with more than two sexes are actually portrayals of alien species with two sexes, plus hermaphrodite and/or neuter. And occasionally, alternatively or concomitantly, of a fluidity to the binary that is more assumed than demonstrated with regard to any vertebrate more "derived" than certain fish and frogs.

    I'm sorry, did you maybe learn some weird system of symbolic logic with which I am unacquainted? I ask because, well, "A, B, both A and B, neither A nor B, and/or A becoming B quite easily or the reverse"...are none of them C, you idiots! You're incapable of even conceiving of a third sex; you can't even really conceive of another "gender", you just sometimes claim that people get to pick which one they are, or that they aren't one (apparently when you say "science" fiction you mean Mary Baker Eddy).

    There are very good reasons organisms on Earth have two sexes, even when they combine them in one organism like roses and snails do. All neuter organisms reproduce by budding or fission. I don't object to you trying to depict an organism that does things another way—but I have a serious problem with you saying that you are trying to do that, and then, instead of giving it an actual try, doing something else entirely.
  • An idea I like is aliens with different senses—e.g. Niven's kdatlyno and their radar. I don't know that something like that would evolve, on a planet that the Thrint would've colonized and whose inhabitants Kzinti can eat, but it's still a neat idea.

    When my setting was going to include space-borne life (which it was, once, though I don't think I've mentioned it here), the space-borne creatures were going to use radio both as their main sense, and for communication. They can't hear, of course, but they can mimic any sound they receive broadcast over analog radio (I think they might even be able to send images from their heads as analog video). They could even focus their "voice" sufficiently to use it as a weapon—imagine "fus roh da" causing all the asymmetrical molecules in the target to heat up (okay, so that's more like "yol toor shul", but it's not like anyone knows the names of any other Thu'umme).

    I had a whole plot about their dealings with one of the other species (which I hadn't yet decided, although probably not humans, at first), but not even I—who went to the Quentin Tarantino school of "cram in everything you think is cool"—could fit it into my larger plot.
  • On that note, there's some silly idea going around that "Starscream", as a name in Cybertronian culture, has something to do with wind. Maybe solar wind, but what the hell do stars have to do with wind otherwise? No. Many if not most if not all Cybertronians/Transformers/Autobots (which may be the original name of their species—depending on the continuity, but in the current one Orion Pax got the name from unspecified ancient records) are born with radio and radar as a sense, and all of them eventually learn to incorporate it into their physiology. Therefore? They can hear the stars (and "naked eye object" is a term with no meaning for them). My theory is that "Starscream" is the Cybertronian word for "sunspot" (there is a Decepticon named "Sunspot", but he only exists in the Bayformers continuity and thus can be safely discounted—even there, he's only a toy, not in the films). It's probably a similar name in their culture to, well, Solarflare.
  • I just discovered, on the 27th in fact, that I can't use 59 Virginis for the zled star. It's too young. The Internet Stellar Database lists it as 4.5 billion years old, but apparently the newer calculations say it's only about a tenth of that, much too young for life. I'm moving their home star to 18 Scorpii, which is a trifle more sun-like than I like but otherwise okay. I spent most of the 27th coming up with a new calendar for them; I decided this time around not to have months, but to base the divisions of their year (now much shorter—383 Julian days instead of 653) on the seasons. They still have a lunisolar calendar, but now their two moons (which I decided have a Trojan orbit) define their week(-analogue), not a "month". I'm a little impressed with myself, redoing...crap, twelve years of work in a single day, with only what wailing and gnashing of teeth was strictly necessary.

    I don't have to change too much of the actual books; most of the stars that are remote from 59 Virginis, and thus good places for the frontier colonies most of the books are set in, are also remote from 18 Scorpii (they are also roughly as remote from Sol). One that I am changing is instead of γ Serpentis-Tianshìyòuyuánsì (I also use the Chinese star-names), one of the books will now be set on a planet orbiting σ Boötis-Gěnghé-èr; given its Chinese name means "celestial lance", I'm changing the colony's name from "Iron-Crutch Li" to "Èrlángshén", since he uses a spear and all. It's a cooler name anyway.

    I might have to come up with another Pole Star for them. I know I want Orion to be an important constellation (I checked, it still pretty much looks like Orion from where they are, although the Belt is squished to one side), either on their equator or on their ecliptic; Muphrid no longer works as a Pole Star from 18 Scorpii. The math to be certain is hell, but I'm probably eventually going to do it, that's just the kind of man I am. (First I have to determine the galactic coordinates of some star in Orion, like say Alnitak, relative to 18 Sco, then I have to convert that to RA and Dec, then I have to essentially stick that star at the coordinates of something on the ecliptic, like say α Leonis, then I have to figure out what c. 90° declination away from that would be, then I have to convert that to galactic coordinates and find a star nearby to be the pole-star).
  • Might redo some of their constellations, which will entail renaming some of their stars. Sol is now in a constellation consisting of part of Taurus and part of Canis Major, which I could easily see as a monster Orion (which they also imagine as a hero, though not primarily a hunter) is killing. Gliese 570 (where my short-story "Fine and Fitting" takes place) is now in Orion. ...Actually it's significantly further from 18 Scorpii than it is from Sol, I might have to change the location of that story. HR 4458, or 289 G. Hydrae as 24th-century people prefer to call it, is half again as far from 18 Scorpii as from Sol, but the zledo have had space-folds for longer so that's okay. It's now in a constellation containing pieces of Monoceros and Puppis, as well as β and γ Canis Majoris, a bit behind Orion (if he's facing toward Sol); think I'll have it be his steed. The description doesn't change much, it just has one less red dwarf companion.

    Ξ Boötis is now in a constellation consisting of parts of Taurus and Auriga, seeming to hover over the head of the monster-constellation Sol is in. Don't know what that'll be yet, maybe a bird-analogue (in an unrelated capacity to the hero-monster fight happening on the zodiac). Σ Boötis is in a constellation consisting of several of the brightest stars in Ursa Majoris. Actually it kinda looks like a bear (though not in the way UMa is usually thought of), so maybe I'll name that one after a stughõ, which is a vaguely ursine zled domestic animal, used something like an elephant. 61 Ursae Majoris, which is where the first-contact story takes place, is now in a constellation mostly consisting of Gemini and Coma Berenices stars, as well as a couple Ursa Major ones (including Talitha Borealis, ι Ursae Majoris). I think I'll have that constellation be a ship.

    Given they put south at the top of maps and have Orion with the same orientation we in the Northern Hemisphere do, I think Lhãsai still rotates backwards, like it did when η Boötis was its pole-star. ("East" is defined by rotation and "north" and "south" are defined relative to it.)
  • It's kinda funny to be alive now. In between February of 2011 and October of 2013, the "scientific consensus" went from "Earthlike planets are exceedingly rare" to "between 20% and 33% of sunlike stars have Earthlike planets in their Goldilocks Zones". That one little datum (pretending for the moment that we actually know that, and we don't, it's an estimate) makes three of the seven terms of the Drake Equation "we have an educated guess" rather than "we pluck the numbers from the air". Admittedly, we already had a guess for the first, "the rate of star formation in the galaxy".

    The Drake Equation—N = R × fp × ne × fl × fi × fc × L—is, as its critics often point out, complete BS. It is an attempt to dress up wishful thinking as science, at best a framing for a problem of whose basic framework we know, more or less, nothing. Having an educated guess for three of its seven terms doesn't actually change that...in real life. For a science fiction writer, though, the Drake Equation was always useful, because setting the values certain ways said how many alien civilizations you had to plan around. Three of those terms now being "known" (albeit only in the form of a Scientific Wild-Ass Guess—YOLO!) greatly simplifies things for the science-fiction writer.
  • Example of how nuts I am: remember how in the last part of "Fine and Fitting", Dhêmãshlek mentions that zledo can process methanol (this is then translated by Léih Sèuhndíng)? Well, I figured out what, in general terms, that entails. The reason methanol is toxic is because it is metabolized into formic acid and formaldehyde. Zled metabolism has some mechanism (which I do not specify) that allows their bodies to safely remove these chemicals. The net effect, however, is that their crap smells like embalmed ants the next day.

    Their alcohol intoxication is different in other ways—they don't use GABA because their biosphere uses an entirely different set of amino acids (they do use an amino acid as their main inhibitory neurotansmitter, though). They also don't use acetylcholine, whose nicotinic receptors alcohol has a "facilitatory" effect on. I decided on that because of another characteristic of their chemistry, one that I decided on during the initial writing of the second book several years ago (although I determined its precise nature just now): zledo are immune to sarin nerve-gas (although if you pump a facility full of it they'll still die, just by suffocation—would've been cheaper to use CO2). Even I don't know what they do use for a neurotransmitter; I don't know if it's a different choline or something else entirely. Maybe a glutamate, some of those are used in the muscle-cells of cephalopods (vertebrates only use acetylcholine in their muscle-nerves, although they use glutamic acid as a neurotransmitter in other parts of their nervous systems).

    Maybe have them use the methanoic-acid choline—formylcholine? That might have some connection to the fact they can metabolize methanol ("methanoic acid" is the more systematic name for "formic acid"). Maybe the propanoic-acid one (methane-ethane-propane, their derivatives follow the same convention), propionylcholine? That's found in cow livers, apparently, though not as a neurotransmitter I don't think. I probably won't specify, I don't have the chemistry background to be sure I won't embarrass myself.

2014/02/21

Swords and Plowshares III

Speculative material culture, much of it designed for unfriendly purposes.
  • The advantage of digital is the ease with which it's stored and transmitted; its downside is that you lose quality as an unavoidable part of the process, although if you're careful you never lose any quality after the first digital encoding (because your jaggy MS Paint drawing of a sound-wave—which is what digital audio is—can be reproduced indefinitely, the same way as when you first rendered it as a jaggy MS Paint drawing of a sound-wave). Analog wears.

    But...what about optical-media analog storage? The chief downside currently is the sheer size necessary (compare LaserDiscs to DVDs), but, what if you use a very small-wavelength laser and some sort of nano-material storage medium? I wouldn't be surprised if a future society switched to something like tiny LaserDiscs, their surfaces marked on the nanometer scale and read by blue, violet, or even near UV lasers, for audio and video storage, at least for "master" copies. The future versions of hardcore "audio snobs" and photography (and cinematography) geeks would probably trade exclusively in analog.

    We can blow up old photographs, taken with ordinary commercially-available cameras, and read newspaper headlines reflected on people's shiny brass buttons; anyone who tells you that's within the capabilities of even the state-of-the-art, "professional" grade of digital cameras is a liar or a delusional idiot. And remember how, before the shift to all-digital, you could adjust your "rabbit ears" just so and get a serviceable TV picture? Well when you have bad reception with a digital signal, you get nothing, just jagged blocks of scrambled color and screeching noise.
  • A shift to analog optical-storage for audio and video would put copyright law back to before the days of file-sharing. Analog is much harder to transmit (although as I just mentioned it loses less when transmitted imperfectly). The digital copies that can be transmitted, with their layers of white noise to act as "dithering" for their MS Paint jaggy sound-waves, might come to be viewed the way we used to view bootleg records. Admittedly the widespread adoption of an analog optical storage medium would presumably involve the invention of efficient ways to record to that medium, which would allow some analog copying (as there always was), but since you'd still have to move physical objects (since you'd have to digitize to transmit over computer networks), it'd put things back on their "pirated tapes" footing rather than the file-sharing one we have now.
  • If you wonder why zled laser weapons are powered by springs, the answer, aside from "I thought it seemed cool", is "reliability"—there's a reason survival radios and emergency flashlights use them so often. Also, a mainspring might, conceivably, slice your head clean off if it pops out just right, but it's nothing like as volatile as a chemical battery. I had considered having the springs charge ultracapacitors, from which the lasers are then charged; I also discovered that the energy density of a normal metal mainspring may be prohibitively low, and is definitely hard to figure out. All the numbers I could find would seem to indicate that that "4 Watts for 25 minutes" windup radio would need a 20 kilo spring, if not 43, and we know that's not the case (I may be misconstruing something about the thing's power-output). But I found that, with the technology to make much longer polymer molecules than we currently can, you can make "molecular springs" out of polymers like polyacetylene (AKA polyethyne) and the helicenes, with energy densities from .1 megajoules/kilogram all the way up to 10. Apparently molecular springs can also release lots of energy at once, so this also solves another problem. And even the low end of that range gives us 100 kJ/kg, which comes to 64 grams per four shots, and 256 grams for all sixteen shots (decided not to bother with multiple springs). That's 17 grams lighter than the ammunition, alone, in a Glock 21 (13 rounds of 45 ACP, 21 g each), and that's not counting the mass for the Glock's magazine. 'Course, the casing on the spring adds a little weight, too—the total weight might well be about the same, since a spring is something you want a nice heavy-duty casing on.

    That's a civilian and police "hand laser". Their military "long laser" fires 10 kJ shots. Unfortunately at that 10 kJ a pop, 48-shot springs at 100 kJ/kg equal 5.5 kg per "magazine", which is way too big. Even the kind of elephant-gun cartridge that has comparable muzzle energy (laser wounds are basically bullet wounds with no bullet in them)—say .585 Nyati since I can find the stats for those rounds—weighs 3,034 grams when you get 48 of them together (most elephant guns are single-shot or double-barrel for a reason). Maybe have the military springs made of some different material, that can store more energy? ".1-10 MJ/kg" is a pretty wide range; if we say the military's springs have the energy density of, say, a typical rechargeable battery, we get 288 kJ/kg, which brings each spring to a kilo and two-thirds. I think I might actually at least have two springs in the long guns, that'd probably be a big disc otherwise. (Maybe they sell military-grade springs for the hand lasers, more expensive or more regulated or both, that give 46 shots for the same weight—SMG lasers, maybe?)
  • While the zledo are wandering around with spring-loaded lasers, the Peacekeepers have bullets propelled by octanitrocubane. This allows each round to require only 67.2% as much propellant as is used in the G11's caseless rounds (which use RDX), and 42% as much propellant as the equivalent nitrocellulose-propelled round.

    What that probably translates to is that the caseless rounds no longer have to be rectangular, the way the G11's are. A circle has 78.5% the area of a square whose side-length is its diameter, meaning that even with cylindrical rounds, the octanitrocubane propellant nets an 11.3% increase in power. If the length remains the same, after all, then the difference of volume between a cylinder and a rectangular prism is the difference between the area of a circle and that of a square.

    That's assuming all other things being equal, which they aren't—the PK rounds in my book are 6.8 mm compared to the G11's 4.7, and have muzzle energies of around 2,300 J, comparable to, well, 6.8 mm Remington SPC, as opposed to the G11's 1,406 J, comparable to the 5.45×39 mm round used in the AK-74.
  • Peacekeeper sidearms, meanwhile, are probably in the equivalent of 10 mm Auto, which is much stronger than 9 mm Parabellum but not on par with the 1.6 kJ lasers zledo use for a sidearm, which is the equivalent of .44 Magnum. I'm not sure if the Peacekeeper pistol round is 9 or 10 mm; I vacillate back and forth. If it's 9 mm (which I lean toward), I might have it be 9×22, like .357 SIG, rather than 9×19. Of course, "caseless"—that second number is the overall length of the caseless round, including the cylinder of propellant, rather than the length of the casing.

    I imagine that 24th-century CIP/SAAMI/NATO EPVAT or their successors ("Peacekeeper Small Arms Proofing", maybe, to translate the full name of CIP literally?) might designate caseless rounds with a C, or maybe with an E to indicate electronic firing, the way they indicate rimmed cartridges with an R. Actually, more likely, late-21st- or early 22nd-century CIP/SAAMI/NATO EPVAT successors would designate caseless rounds with a C, and later ones would stop. The "Nitro Express" seen in some cartridge names refers to nitrocellulose ("express" because of the higher muzzle-velocity it can produce)—those rounds were first made in the early days of smokeless powder. Nowadays nobody bothers to mention their round uses smokeless powder.
  • It occurs to me that the spring-cartridges would occasion a difference of design, for zled weapons. Rather than looking like Tanegashima matchlocks, they would probably—since they have a big, probably disk-shaped, spring somewhere on the weapon—look like wheellocks. Like this pistol, from this Finnish antique site:
    Or this hunting musket (actually a combination matchlock-wheellock—your guess is as good as mine how that works), from the Metropolitan Museum of Art:
    Of course, the zled ones don't have the actual hammers and their triggers are on the back—also lasers do not need ramrods—but it's a good starting point. They go with actually-long "long lasers" because they never got that memo about how nobody uses bayonets anymore (it's been a whole 28 months!).
  • People sticking the genes for bioluminescence into just about every organism they can get into a laboratory, plus various other plans for ways to make plants glow, makes me think, what if an alien species came from a planet with plants (or, well, "vegetative autotrophs", but same difference) that were already bioluminescent? Maybe instead of the UV "landing strips" on our flowers, that help pollinators, they glow at night, to guide some similar symbiotic species. And what if the sapient inhabitants of such a planet bred those plants selectively, the way we've bred food crops? Bet they could get some very respectable light out of 'em after 25,000 years.

    I realize that everybody in fantasy from the drow to the people of Quarmall to the Falmer (who are blind...) grows glowing mushrooms, but you don't see it much in science fiction. Why shouldn't some alien species' streetside trees become streetlights, at night? I'm giving it to the khângây, they're crepuscular (the zledo are too), and I haven't written enough about them for this small amount of rewriting to be a hassle (which is why I can't use this idea for the zledo). Each khângây clan has its own breed of lighting-plants, and the precise shade of the light will tell you whose territory you're in. (Since they also have a fourth color-receptor, for near-UV, they can distinguish ten times as many shades as species with only three.)
  • It seems unlikely to me that anyone would ever use particle beam weapons, except in space. The least likely use is the anti-personnel small arms one. First off, they use far more power than a laser with the same applicability. Second, and I hope more importantly, they pretty much always give you radiation-poisoning—whether it's a lethal or only "most likely lethal, eventually" dose is determined by whether it's a direct hit or not. Aside from the moral considerations, there are heaps of treaties that'd get in the way.

    No, I know, "science fiction is about the 'Englightenment' worldview"—the worldview that debated giving the Indians smallpox-laced blankets (though there is no evidence they ever actually did it), and also gave the world mustard gas, Zyklon-B, and sarin, and firebombed Dresden and nuked Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But unless you are going to write a story about callousness and inhumanity of that caliber, and give us a believably amoral setting to back it up—when the whole trend of war in the last 50 years has been away from that kind of thing, especially since the end of the Cold War (where the amorality was limited to nukes, and the whole point of those was having them but never using them)—I'm not buying it. Particle beams can punch through very large quantities of most matter, letting them penetrate armor (at least if it's not protected against ionizing radiation—which a spacefaring civilization's armor might be), and thus might be thought of like depleted uranium. But you still mostly die from the actual impact of depleted uranium (and the fact it catches fire on impact), and are quite unlikely to die from the radiation. You always die from particle beam radiation, or very nearly always. Poisoned bullets are illegal for a reason.

    As for particle beam artillery, the power issue goes away, since vehicle-scale weapons don't need their power systems to be man-portable. But on the other hand, the backscatter from a large particle beam is as deadly as the fallout from a nuke. You'd have to completely radiation-suit all your personnel, and still couldn't use the particle artillery anywhere near a friendly population. While particle-beam weapons might see some use in space, on a planet they'd be too power-intensive and morally fraught to be good for an anti-personnel role, and too dangerous to friendly personnel for an artillery role.

2014/01/27

Measure, and Number, and Weight

Reference to the last part of Wisdom 11:20 or 11:21—different versions seem to divide the verse in different spots. It was a very popular verse in the Middle Ages (because there was a reason they invented science), and led to illustrations like this one, in the Toledo Bible.

Thoughts upon, well, measures, and numbers, and weight.
  • In light of those newer numbers for the Crusades, I've redone that comparison I did a while back, comparing the Crusades' death-toll to that of World War II. They still would've had to kill 8.25 million people to depopulate the world to the same extent; 2 million instead of 1.5 million brings them to 24% the global-depopulation rate of World War II, and 163 years instead of 300 means the Crusades took 27 times as long, not 50 times. That means our optimism, as people that fought World War II, is only 112.1 times as naïve as that of the medievals, as people who fought the Crusades, not 275 times.

    But again, human life is not subject to economic scarcity, since every person that dies is unique (i.e., scarcity is always total for every human being). If Alice lives in a city of 50,000 people, and Bob lives in a city of 6 million, it's not 120 times worse if Alice kills someone than if Bob does. The fact is that 35 times as many people were deliberately or negligently killed by World War II as were killed by the Crusades, and the Crusades were 163 years long, vs. six, so that "35 times as much slaughter" actually translates to "950 times (!!) the rate of killing".

    While I'm at it, 2 million dead in 163 years of Crusades plus 3.3 million dead in 116 years of Hundred Years (Rounded Down) War, comes to 5.3 million dead in 279 years. Meanwhile the Thirty Years (On the Dot) War killed about 7.25 million (taking the average of the estimates). I.e., the definitive "Enlightenment" conflict killed 37% more people, in 10.75% as long, i.e. at 12.7 times the rate, as the two biggest medieval wars, combined.
  • Speaking of death tolls, apparently the Mongol conquest estimates should be revised sharply downward, since a lot of the assumptions involve "reductions between Chinese censuses" and it's obviously difficult to take a census of territories you lost to the Horde. Apparently a more realistic number is 15 million between 1206 and 1368, which still comes to 7.5 times as much killing as the Crusades. It's 2.83 times as much killing as "the Crusades and Hundred Years War combined", in 58% as long, which comes to 4.87 times the kill rate.

    The Mongols were actually less killtacular than Hideyoshi's invasion of Joseon Korea—half as killtacular, in fact, they killed 13 and 7/11 times as many people in 27 times as long, which comes to 50/99 or just under 51% as much killing over time. Which means the old number is only 1/99, or just over 1%, higher than Hideyoshi's kill rate! (Well, half the dead in that war, c. 90% of them Koreans, were killed by the Chinese—who were Korea's ally at the time—but still, it shows that the Mongols weren't unusually kill-crazed for Asia. Hideyoshi's ambition was to march roughshod over China and put a Japanese dynasty in place, if it'd taken him 162 years he would've done it, except the Chinese and Yi Sunshin stopped him at Joseon.)

    Suddenly Hideyoshi's treatment in Sengoku Basara doesn't seem so over-the-top. "The world you would create has no room for anyone but soldiers."
  • Remember couple years ago, when I said the decimal equivalents of the sevenths-fractions don't matter to anyone but Bungee employees? It's true, but hang on a minute.

    I found out, the sevenths, as decimals, have a very weird property. Namely? They all have the same digits. Having a denominator that's a prime number that is not a factor of the numerical base (in base-fourteen they'd be expressed the same way the fifths are in decimal), their decimal expression is repeating. But they always repeat the same six digits, and five of them are "7", "14", and "28" (the last one is "5", for some reason, possibly having to do with the numerical base being 2×5).

    1/7 is (0.)"142857" repeating, 2/7 is (0.)"285714" repeating, 3/7 is (0.)"428571" repeating (every time after that, notice, the "4" is preceded by "1", i.e. "14"), 4/7 is (0.)"571428" repeating, 5/7 is (0.)"714285" repeating, and 6/7 is (0.)"857142" repeating (again, every time after the first the "8" is preceded by "2"). And like I said, in base-14 they'd be .2, .4, .6, .8, .A, and .C (or however you write "ten" and "twelve" when "10" and "12" represent fourteen and sixteen, respectively).
  • A search of the blog suggests I haven't mentioned it, but I changed the zled measurements to be based around 120, rather than 144, "long hundreds" instead of grosses. Because zledo have ten fingers and therefore will also like fives and tens, and 120 is divisible by almost every number 144 is (except 9 and 16, since it's not the square of the product of their roots), but 144 isn't divisible by 5 or 10.
  • One thing that always strikes me as odd is that often, the "older", more "primitive" ships in many SF settings are smaller. But, look at Project Daedalus or Longshot or the Frisbee antimatter-rocket—these things are huge! They have to carry everything along with them, they're civilization-defining works on par with the Great Wall of China or the entire US Interstate highway-system. As space-travel gets easier, especially if your setting includes FTL, ships won't have to carry as much, since they're no longer setting up in the Great Unknown with no help available for decades. The newer ships would probably, in general, be smaller.

    Size, of course, would ultimately be determined by function. Entry vehicles are space-planes, system-ships have to be able to hold the tankage for voyages of several AU (or rather, to accelerate to a speed where those voyages are relatively convenient). Starships' size will be determined by how you have interstellar travel work—in mine, for instance, there's FTL, but you have to get out to a given range from a star (roughly the semimajor axis of Pluto's orbit, for Sol) or your space-fold will cause topological defects. So the starships are huge, with massive tankage, so they can get out to a distance of dozens of AUs in a timely manner.
  • Remember a few posts back, when I said a zled the same size as a human would weigh 104 kilos, thanks to his extra muscle mass? Yeah, but, some of you probably thought (I would've), zledo aren't the same size as humans, they're bigger. So what're the real numbers?

    An average male zled stands 194 centimeters with his heels flat, and weighs 147 kilos. That is the average height and weight on the Dallas Cowboys offensive line. An average female zled stands 175 centimeters with her heels flat, and weighs 97 kilos, which is toward the smaller end of women's Olympic shot-putters, e.g. Elisângela Adriano.

    Of course, raw height-to-weight numbers don't tell the whole story; not even percent muscle-mass does that. A male puma, for example, is about the same size as an average female human, and about three-quarters more of its mass is made up of muscle (a bit over 60% compared to c. 36%—we'll say 63% vs 36% to make the ratio tidy). An average woman, however, not only cannot jump over a six-foot fence while carrying a golden retriever, as a puma can, she isn't anywhere near being able to, forget about being four-sevenths of the way there, which is the difference of their muscle-masses.
  • Apparently archaeologists actually find all the traces of "behavioral modernity" in Homo sapiens-associated sites at least as far back as the Middle Paleolithic. Details are here. However, the writer of that article seems to try to make the evidence say too much, claiming that the presence of these "modern" traits at older levels means there was no "behavioral modernity" revolution. But...notice how the "modernity" of those Middle Paleolithic (and maybe earlier) sites "appears at a few sites or for a few thousand years in one region or another, and then it vanishes"?

    But it doesn't vanish in the Upper Paleolithic. While there are always going to be survivals of older technology (the author of that paper teaches flintknapping), that doesn't affect the fact that "current" technology changes. While the "Upper Paleolithic Revolution" is not the sharp, sudden break it was once characterized as, and it certainly can't be attributed to a physiological change, the fact that what was once done only localized and temporarily was now done all over and on a sustained basis...is pretty much what we mean by "revolution", actually. People had had factories from Roman times, and medieval Europe had mechanical saws and cam-driven automated hammers . But it wasn't the basis of their whole system of manufacture, which is why we call the "Industrial Revolution" a revolution.

    One gets the definite impression that article is claiming more than the data actually support, possibly because "there was no Upper Paleolithic Revolution" sounds more like a breakthrough than "behavioral modernity is not an all-or-nothing proposition, but the gradual adoption, on a widespread, longterm basis, of practices that had previously been isolated and sporadic". Nuance is the bane of a press-release, although some claim to find a use for it in academic discourse. Which one is science-writing supposed to be, again?
  • The size-difference between the zled sexes, with females c. 66% the mass of males, is unheard of for mammals that mate for life, as zledo and their close relatives do (they're basically jackals, even though they look like cats). But zledo are not mammals—they're only even animals in the Aristotelian sense, since "animals" as modern biology defines the concept have DNA (there is, by the way, a taxonomic level higher than "kingdom"—"biosphere"). Anyway there are monogamous birds, the raptors, with that ratio of size-dimorphism—it's just the females that are bigger. Among the several theories as to why female raptors are bigger than males, the theory that seems most applicable to the opposite size-ratio is that smaller males are more agile, and thus more able to catch birds (bird-hunting raptors have the greatest size-dimorphism), which they bring to their brooding mates. Presumably, therefore, zled males being larger could evolve to let them take more of some type of prey ("which they bring to their brooding nursing mates"), which thus conferred an evolutionary advantage.

    Of course, you can explain anything as conferring an evolutionary advantage, even opposite traits; that facet of Darwinian analysis sometimes leaves a bad taste in my mouth. In one of the short stories on my DeviantArt account, over there on the right, that is explicitly identified as the analysis of the zled scientists, who happen also to be monks; I do not mention it but they do actually add the caveat that that would be a theory of how "males bigger than females" is selected for in a monogamous species, if it is. As Stephen Jay Gould was known to point out—the "cosmogonic 'just-so story' myth" form of Darwinian analysis famously irritated him—some traits that aren't actually selected for may "piggy-back" with traits that are. Gould even had a name for such traits, "spandrels", by analogy with an architectural feature, the triangular area at the margin of an arch. Spandrels are commonly decorated, but they do not exist as a decorative element—they exist because of the nature of arches and domes. (I don't know that any size-dimorphism, in any species no matter what its mating strategy, is or is not a spandrel—but it could be. Bonobos, for example, have an even greater size-dimorphism than chimps, but bonobo males do not fight off rivals, while chimp males do. "Big males fighting off rivals" is commonly offered as the theory for chimp size-dimorphism, but what about bonobo dimorphism?)

2014/01/18

Blastoff Is My Favorite Combaticon

Well, he's tied with Vortex and Swindle and, really, I guess, all of them; but this is a post about space, and they're not rockets. I love that he's tsundere—he pretends to hold non-space capable Decepticons in contempt, but he's actually just trying to console himself about being all alone up there. And hey, he probably saved them all, when Bruticus got knocked off the Ark.

Anyway, space thoughts. Oh, I also changed the blog font. I was getting tired of having letters with non-ASCII diacritics show up in Times New Roman.
  • One issue with the Firefly episode "Out of Gas" that I didn't get to, is that they realistically wouldn't need their main power to keep the air. If your tech is remotely up to it, you'd use passive systems to recycle your air, precisely so you wouldn't have problems like that—some kind of engineered algae in the vents is a popular SF choice. Since these people can terraform multiple planets to Earthlike conditions in less than 400 years, they can build passive air-recyclers. (They can also move the seventh moon of Saturn, but shhh, how dare you suggest that the physical requirements for a physical process are knowable!)

    You might still need fans going to circulate all your air through the passive recycler system, admittedly, but they really would have the fans on their own independent power supply (along with, probably, water purifiers). Again: spaceships are not cars. They are nuclear submarines. A breakdown doesn't mean "stranded", it means "dead, in any of several horrible ways", so "redundancy" and "failsafe" are two components of the name of the game (the game has a long name, like a Spanish aristocrat).
  • What is the deal with people just randomly taking a traditional fairy-tale, kaidan, or mythological plot, and re-labeling the fairies, yokai, or gods as "aliens"? Space isn't magic. While you could just barely get away with "these 'aliens' are actually descended from ancient humans/hominids harvested from earth by another species", a lot of people seem to think you can have actual aliens that can pass for human in good light. You can't. You want to tell stories about fairies, man up and tell stories about fairies. You want to have aliens, then while "approximately humanoid" isn't terribly unlikely, "can wear our clothes other than hats and sarongs" is.

    As I think I've mentioned before, Japan, for some reason, is the worst about this. Their aliens are either giant-monster wholly incomprehensible Eldritch Abominations (which, again, are demons with the VIN numbers melted off) or just humans with maybe funny ears or forehead tattoos. Then again their supernatural fiction also often posits that the yokai are products of the human heart, and that's crap, except for a certain category of ghosts and things-sorta-like-ghosts. Phenomenological anthropocentrism is odious; why do people have such trouble with the idea that there can be things in the world that are like us, but are not related to us?

    It might be related to the fact that Japan, while they'll often surprise you with their knowledge of foreign cultures, will just as often shock you with their provincialism. Fundamentally, deep down, it kinda seems like they don't believe the rest of the world is real. (New Yorkers and English people seem to suffer from the same ailment, both with much less excuse—Japan is the only place its language is spoken, for example, that's not the case for Manhattan or Britain—so it might be an "island-dweller" thing.)
  • Saw Europa Report. It has a very good portrayal of space-travel, although I wonder about some details of their setup (and their total lack of propellant tanks). But the plot has some glaringly silly choices. E.g., a 2159 space mission is not going to be using inflated pressure suits, they're going to be using mechanical counterpressure suits—that guy whose suit gets cut will have a frost-bitten hickey, rather than having to scrub the whole EVA. Also RE: that scene, we're already investigating replacements for hydrazine, like 2-dimethylaminoethylazide or hydroxylamine nitrate, and besides, as someone on a forum put it, "hydrazine is poisonous, but it isn't VX nerve gas." Getting some on a spacesuit means "you might have some acid burns and respiratory scarring", not "we have to lock you outside the ship to suffocate".

    Also, if the radiation from Jupiter is of such concern (although, again, 2159 spacesuit designers don't have any new ideas?), why not go punch the ice on the far side of Europa? You guys do know Europa is tidally locked, right? One side of it always faces its planet, just like Luna, so if you're afraid of the planet's radiation, put 48 quintillion tons of, well, Europa, between you and that radiation. You only have to wait a quarter of a week for the sun to rise, rather than half a month, Europa's period is 3.5 Earth days. And why do they not have any rovers, either of the "schlepping us around" variety or of the "remote-controlled and can examine things" variety?

    Actually I know the answer to those questions: Rule of Scary, because Europa Report is a horror movie (maybe, being very generous, Rule of Melodrama). Why do science fiction movies have to be horror (that you might generously describe as melodrama)? When did we all decide that all our movies about space must be about how it's too dangerous and horrible up there, and only a fool would go (admittedly only a fool would do it the way they do it in this movie)? Paying lip-service to discovery means nothing when the actual emotional import of your film is "No don't look! There are Things Man Was Not Meant to Know!" Especially not when you express your lip-service in terms ("Compared to the breadth of knowledge yet to be known, what does your life actually matter?") that sound like something Josef Mengele might ask, shortly before he starts reminding us how he got his nickname.
  • An interesting facet of writing aliens is, if they have different senses or sensory acuities from humans, aspects of their science change. For instance, in my own fiction, zledo have as good of night-vision as cats (an average of seven times as good)—which means they can see apparent-magnitude 8 with the naked eye (humans can only see 6). That means, among other things, they would've known about Neptune before the invention of the telescope. They also saw a lot more stars, although I'm not sure how that would effect their conception of the cosmos. E.g., the oft-repeated idea that Australian Aborigines' constellations are the dark areas rather than the light, because they see so many stars, is simplistic—they actually just sometimes list dark areas of visible nebulae as "constellations" (or more correctly "sky objects"), rather than just stars. (So did the ancient Eurasians, by the way, that's why we have a sky-object called the Milk Circle, Silver River, or Sky-Road of the Warriors, in Greece, China, and Hungary, respectively. Hungary totally wins.)

    Khângây can see near-UV, so their astronomy probably developed very differently from ours—for one thing, it's a lot harder to make lenses out of quartz, so all their early experiments in optics would probably involve, from their point of view, red-tinted images, since glass chops off half of the hundred-nanometer near-UV range (it can show 400-350 nm, but not 350-300 nm). They probably also would've discovered "Wood's glass" a lot sooner, though, so maybe they incorporated it into telescopes and avoided the red-tinting problem? I've been having a hard time finding out what would be different if you could see near-UV with the naked eye, because most discussion of ultraviolet in astronomy is about far-UV, which atmospheres of Earthlike planets are opaque to (good thing, too), so you need orbital cameras, most of them attached to telescopes, to view it.
  • A really cool concept in astronomy, although not as cool as its name, is a "peak of eternal light" (and relatedly, a "valley of eternal darkness"). What is this fantastical-sounding thing? It's exactly what it sounds like. A peak that's always in the light, or a valley that's always in the dark. You only find them near the poles of bodies with nearly no axial tilt.

    The Moon has a couple mountains that are close, although not quite (they spend 85% of the time in light, not counting the occasional eclipse by the Earth). Mercury might also have them, although we haven't mapped it well enough to be sure; if it does, they would never experience darkness, there's nothing to eclipse Mercury.

    I wonder if it also has to be tidally locked, like Mercury and the Moon are. Maybe not, the Moon has a day-night cycle (we call it the phases), because it's tidally locked to Earth, not to the Sun. Maybe a surface-structure qualifies as a PEL if some part of it is always in the light, rather than the whole thing? A perfectly conical mountain at a planet's rotational pole would probably qualify.
  • I've mentioned that space-communications are more likely to involve text than audio, since time-lag gets in the way further out than about Lunar orbit (1.28 light-seconds). Think how annoying even a 1.28 second delay between responses would be, for phones. Hell, most people text more than they call anyway, and social media has become a cornerstone of communication in just under a decade (c. 2006 or so); space-communications are likely to involve a somewhat more-formal version of Facebook status updates and comments.

    I say more formal because, again, realistically, spaceship crews will be government employees. The communications of civilian colonists will pretty much be Facebook, with all that that entails, but they'll probably be semi-segregated from the official communications. I think in my own work I might have people call that kind of communication "weibó", the genericized trademark from a Chinese site that's like a cross between Facebook and Twitter—maybe they use it as a verb, e.g. "We weibó once in a while but we haven't spoken in person in a long time." Actually, that only goes for in-system communication. Between systems, due to the limited number of FTL transmitters and the cost of bandwidth on them, people keep in touch by (e)mail, since even a huge mail service involves vastly less server-load than social-networking does.
  • Another thing brought to my attention by watching "Out of Gas" is that I very strongly dislike plot-points that only happen because of the writers' liberties with reality. Because a major factor in their air-supply issues, is a fire that started on the engine, and which they had to vent into space (taking much of their non-burned-away air with it). Bully for them, knowing that fire and air-supply are closely related things, and that a fire in a space environment can result in suffocation as well as burns. Give yourselves a big pat on the back.

    ...Of course, the whole thing would never have happened if they'd just designed the Serenity realistically. A major factor in realistic spaceships, the reason their engine and habitat sections are separated by a half-mile of truss-frame (generally with the propellant tanks attached to it), is so that what ought to be a relatively minor engine problem doesn't jeopardize the life-support! How do the engineers fix the engines, then? Waldoes, caveman, waldoes—your engineer works on the engines with robots, not only because the engine's at the other end of the ship, but because your engineer wants to avoid the radiation that is the reason it has to be on the other end of the ship.

    "Why must everyone avert their eyes from reality?"—Itano Ichirô, Gundam Sôsei.