2015/05/03

The Dimension of Depth

Bit of a rant. Ain't done nothing like this in a while, eh? (Title's a Walt Disney quote: "We have created characters and animated them in the dimension of depth, revealing through them to our perturbed world that the things we have in common far outnumber and outweigh those that divide us.")

Among the six shows out this season that I thought were worth watching (there's probably more than that: this is a good season), is Plastic Memories. I think I'm going to stop watching it, because of its central conceit.

Now, like most anime about robots, the four-year lifespans and centrality of memory should be pretty familiar, because they are of course borrowed from Blade Runner. All anime with robots in them are riffs on Blade Runner; this is not unoriginality, any more than jazz is, because the fun of both is in seeing what this particular person will do with their riffs. You can get things as disparate as Naomi Armitage and Dorothy Wainwright out of that well.

But the thing is, the replicants' four-year lifespan was engineered in, to keep them from accumulating enough experience to question their lot (although then implanting memories derived from humans' experiences more or less neuters that; I think the plot-hole was present in the book too—been a while since I read it—and it's best not to apply non-schizophrenic logic to a Phil Dick story). You wouldn't build it in; if your AI has a four-year lifespan, keep working on it. (I will allow "rampancy" in Bungie games because those are "neural clones", and the emulation is unstable, which emulators often are.)

The Giftias in Plastic Memories, though, have a four-year lifespan because apparently their designers said "Aeh, close enough." Who would design a product like that? How would you go about incorporating them into people's lives (they gloss over whether Giftias are sold, or what) without someone pointing out it's practically emotional abuse to let them get attached to someone who can never live longer than four years without turning into a monster? Who would view the people who come to "retrieve" Giftias as anything other than Dr. Deaths propping up a callous, monstrously incompetent system?

Understand, I don't think that Plastic Memories has a pro-euthanasia agenda, or anything—indeed, I think its plot is slightly tone-deaf for a society with Japan's demographics, in a way that no competent person advocating such a policy would be. I think that the people behind it just wanted to make a show about people whose job is "retiring" obsolete robots and how they angst about it.

But that's not how you do science fiction, not if you're an adult. The premise of Plastic Memories is impossible, because nobody would leave an AI with that flaw, or mass-market them if for some reason the flaw wasn't fixable. There might be a slave-caste of four-year-lifespan androids for certain specialized tasks, but nobody else would ever see one unless they were dealing with the applications where androids are actually an advantage over humans. You could get quite a bit of interesting television out of that, but it wouldn't really work as a slice-of-life show with a slight romance angle. (It could give you "Lifetime movie cancer-patient" romance, coupled with lots of drama RE: the applications where a four-year lifespan for an employee is not a liability or is even an asset, but that would be a very different show from Plastic Memories.)

And that brings me to my point: the setting of Plastic Memories is not being treated as a world: it's being treated as stage-dressing.

The ane-ue, since I accidentally got her turned into a filthy strung-out junkie hooked on Transformers Prime, has put up a "character" Tumblr where (in between explaining Kzinti don't have external genitals Cybertronians are sexless beings and so cannot be shipped) she roleplays as Starscream. She's got a campaign up, protesting the callous way Starscream was treated by season three of the show, and by the movie, especially the ending—where, after spending an entire (half-length) season nerfed into full-bore comic relief that Team Rocket would pity, he gets comeuppance befitting an actual villain. Right after Megatron walks off Scot free, after basically saying that a few days of Unicron doing to him what he'd done to Starscream for millions of years made him have a change of heart.

The writers, in the third season, nerfed Starscream. They had him do stupid things like try to use brute force against Predacons (and forget that an ornithopter might as well be walking, if it has to keep pace with a jet), and let him be bullied by Miko, and somehow be able to be shaken up by jostling that a human being (which is not, to my knowledge, designed to take re-entry or multi-G turns, unlike a Seeker) had been just fine in. Why? Well, partly because they thought Stephen Blum made funny noises as "freaked out Starscream". But also because they were moving the plot from Point A to Point B, and needed to spotlight Miko as if she was a relatable character (rather than a future serial killer), and needed to have the Wreckers live up to their till-then somewhat hollow chest-thumping. (Not only was Starscream nerfed so Wheeljack could seem smart—that whole tracking-device debacle was Ender's Game levels of "we made everyone else stupid rather than come up with a decent plan for the hero"—but Soundwave was, too. And Soundwave's courtesy title, which properly precedes his name whenever used, is actually "Excellent work", even in the Bayverse let alone the Aligned continuity.)

They deliberately made Starscream small and sleek in this version, so he would have to use his wits—and then in the third season he becomes a witless moron. They let Soundwave, who is a communications device and has the Nemesis' ground-bridge slaved directly to his nervous system, so he can bridge people basically by flexing a muscle, get trapped between two ground-bridges (if the proximity of the two vortices holds them open, that needs to be stated—again, when it comes to technologies and phenomena you made up, "if you didn't say it, it didn't happen"...and that doesn't explain why Soundwave didn't just immediately bridge himself back again, with his sensors he'd figure out what was going on in a tenth the time it took Ratchet).

I realize that the final season was rushed, and they probably had to shoehorn the Predacons in. But that is my point: they were doing shoddy work, however good their excuse. (Besides, they did the same "this guy's totally evil, never mind we never really showed you that" thing with Breakdown, and that was in the second season.) It is shoddy work to treat a character as a counter on a game-board. It is shoddy work to treat a setting as stage-dressing. Why on Earth would Starscream, of all people, try to browbeat Predaking, who he knows is stronger than him? It's true he's a petty borderline-psychopath who loves power-trips: but he only trips on power he's got. He might very well zoom off, and proceed to pelt Predaking with missiles from "over-the-horizon" range (the only thing keeping him from doing that to Megatron—they've got cameras on missiles, so he wouldn't even miss the look on his face—is his huge mental block where Megatron is concerned), and then zoom back in to gloat, once Predaking was bludgeoned by concussion-effects and possibly glowing red-hot around the edges. It'd even make sense for him to do that, miscalculate, and get trounced by a Predaking who was less missiled-into-submission than Starscream thought. But hit it with a stick? Why the hell would he do that? Do Cybertronians even think of "random cylindrical bit of debris" as being a bludgeoning-instrument? Tool use actually appears to be genuinely secondary to their mindset, since their anatomy changes to accommodate their tasks.

I realize this impulse, to treat characters as props and settings as stage-dressing, has always been with us. "You'd only build a ship like the Nostromo if you knew it'd be the setting of a horror-movie." But I really think it's gotten worse lately. I don't know if it's the success of Game of Thrones (where the characters exist only to set up the "twists" and the torture-porn—and the regular kind), or ideology (certainly Miko—who, with her total lack of fear around thirty-foot metal Nazis, is the person Goren meant when he said "...Tweak the upbringing another way, [people like that] become psychopaths"—is probably an unusually virulent strain of the stupid version of "strong female character"), but writers seem to care less about character than they used to, even as recently as 2010 or so. (It'd be ironic if the animus against "Mary Sues", where everything works out okay for your character, were involved, given that Miko could basically have been created to be an example of a Mary Sue, and all.)

I think it might be a combination of factors; Whedon and Martin between them being praised for "torturing" their characters, only sometimes figuratively, for example, is almost certainly one—since valuing that kind of thing encourages treating characters as tokens on a game-board, and settings as the spaces they move around on. Certainly nobody who cares about worldbuilding in a work of speculative fiction can like Firefly or ASoIaF, since neither of those settings makes sense for ten consecutive minutes. Another might be the changing nature of media, between the diminishing returns for various kinds of producers and the way social media's affected "word of mouth", fiction-producers might be reacting with something akin to what's known in online media as "clickbait"—with more shallow "twists" and more spotlight on characters or character-traits the "community" likes, rather than on what actually serves the actual story in question. But is there any factor that makes this not bad work, even if it's bad work with an excuse? I'm thinking long and hard and can't find one.

2015/05/02

Sierra and Two Foxtrots

Science fiction and fantasy. Most of the latter is related to RPGs.
  • I had wondered if I could get away with having one of my planets have no life, and yet have an atmosphere humans can breathe. See, oxygen is highly reactive, and ordinarily bonds to other things; it is only found on Earth in a free state because it's exhaled en masse by all our photosynthetic organisms. Things weren't always so, for life on Earth, and in fact the Great Oxygenation Event is believed to have caused a mass-extinction that makes the Great Dying look like a rounding-error, because almost everything then living on Earth was anaerobic. (The presence of free oxygen is a trait exoplanet searches look for, because it indicates a planet might be host to life of the stage after a Great Oxygenation.)

    But, fortunately, the planet in question is in orbit of a K-type star—it orbits at .25 AUs, which is the particular K-type star's Goldilocks Zone. And apparently, M-type stars, at least, might have planets whose atmospheres have free oxygen without life. See, while M-stars are much dimmer overall than Sol, they give off almost the same amount of far-UV light. Far-UV breaks up many oxygen compounds on contact with the upper atmospheres of planets. The amount of light in any wavelength falls off with the square of the distance, so a planet orbiting an M-type star in its Goldilocks Zone is getting far more far-UV than a planet orbiting a G-type star. This probably has little effect on its surface—atmospheres are almost entirely opaque to far-UV—but in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, oxygen is being freed from compounds by radiation, at a rate comparable to that done by organisms on Earth.

    I think I can brazen out that the same process is in play in orbit of a K-type star, although they're intermediate between M and G; certainly their Goldilocks Zone still gets a lot more far-UV than ours does, even if it's not quite as much as an M star's does.
  • It seemed silly to me that the scythe was listed as a martial weapon in 3e D&D, but on reflection it makes sense. If you aren't careful with a scythe, you'll chop the ankles of bystanders or possibly yourself. Plus you have to learn to sharpen it—you use a dry whetstone, and go by the sound. You can also do all kinds of things to a scythe by using it wrong, from loosening the handle to scratching it on the ground.

    And then it occurred to me that the typical human commoner wouldn't have to waste his one feat on Martial Weapon Proficiency (scythe)—because humans get two feats at first level. And of the PC-race humanoids (what we grognards reflexively call "demihumans"), only halflings are likely to need to scythe—elves, dwarves, and gnomes don't farm, at least not the kind of farming that requires scything down grass to make hay.

    If you read that Belloc essay, by the bye, you will discover where Tolkien got the Hobbits: the aboriginal inhabitants of Britain. Belloc says of them that it "is on account of their presence in these islands that our gardens are the richest in the world." He also says they "love low rooms and ample fires and great warm slopes of thatch", which is a Hobbit-hole summed up in twelve words.
  • I discover that a zled vocal apparatus isn't as much like a bird syrinx as I'd thought: since a bird syrinx is in the chest, at the bottom of the trachea, instead of in the neck, at the top, like human vocal cords. And, come to think of it, a human's vocal cords are as "hyoid" (y-shaped) as bird ones are—you have a vocal fold on each side of your windpipe—with the bird's lateralization actually being something different.

    So I guess zledo actually have a vocal apparatus wholly unlike anything found on Earth, instead having two layers of cord, one to make complex "speech" sounds and the other basically only trilling. The latter, I think, might be down lower, allowing a zled to almost deepen trilled sounds like a subwoofer—or like the only-partly-ossified Adam's apple of the pantherines, which can stretch out and vibrate much more deeply to let roars become louder.

    I'd already had zledo use trilled shouts—roars—which can carry for miles, for premodern military signaling. I would imagine that, for one thing, the need for military buglers wouldn't come up: your sergeants can literally bellow like lions. Lion roars can be heard five miles away, after all. (For more surreptitious signaling, the Signalers' Sodality used heliographs, which are still one of their symbols.)
  • Slightly redoing the zled year. I'd been using the "simple" way of calculating where a planet orbits: stick it at a spot where it gets the same amount of sunlight Earth does, relative to its star's luminosity. But you have a bit more wiggle-room than that, since habitable zones are often almost a whole AU wide; so I decided to stick Lhãsai a bit further out, giving them a year 532 Julian days long—shorter than their year was when their primary was 59 Virginis, but still noticeably different from Earth's.

    I also discovered that I can't stick the khângây at ν Phoenicis, which is where they'd been; its current estimated age of 5.7 billion years is a bit too old. Changed their primary to "HD 211415", AKA "GJ 853 A, HIP 110109, HR 8501, LHS 3790, LFT 1702, LTT 8943, SAO 247400," and a couple of other designations about as memorable as a ZIP code for a place you never send mail to. But, I think it might also be "37 G. Gruis"; that name shows up a bit in literature, and HD 211415's number, in the catalog the Gould designations (that's what the G. stands for) are from, is 37. It's in Grus ("the crane"), too, so I think that's its name (for some reason the genitive of grus is gruis—it's third declension, but most third-declension nouns don't end in -ús in the nominative). In my setting, the human colonials refer to the star as "Three-seven Golf Gruis"—when they don't just call it the khângây word for "sun", anyway.

    I had had the khângây have never thought their star went around their planet, but that might be unlikely: even at an orbital distance like the one I gave them (they have a slightly longer year than the zledo), the parallax of the nearest star to them (which is only about 1.2 light-years away—which probably changed their space-development substantially) is about 3.9 arc-seconds. The maximum naked-eye resolution for a human is .6 arc-minutes, which is 36 arc-seconds. Thus, they would need over 9.2 times the visual acuity of humans, and while their vision is markedly superior to that of humans in some respects, they have no need for the same eyes as a hawk, because they don't hunt anything like how a hawk does.
  • Was looking into a few things in Pathfinder. I kinda like their hybrid classes, although they're basically just doing what I was doing with 3.5's gestalt-class alternate rule, except neglecting paladins and psions—and incorporating the utterly superfluous oracle, witch, alchemist, and gunslinger. (Actually, I might give you alchemist.) But their decision to give wizards and sorcerers d6 hit-dice just doesn't sit right; mages should be "glass cannons". Sure, hybridization/gestalting can get you mages who use some other class's bigger hit-die, but when you go all-in for spell-power (the gestalt wizard-sorcerer, which is the hybrid class called "arcanist"—but also gestalt wizard-psion or sorcerer-psion), you should still be rolling d4s.

    "'Tis the duty of the wealthy man/To give employment to the artisan." Let those fighters and barbarians earn their keep by acting as bullet-sponges for the mage, dagnabbit!

    And seriously, anyone who has different stats for margays and cats, or parrots and kakapos (or, for that matter, for parrots and ravens): you are officially OCD. Give the cat a climb speed and you have a margay, or an ocelot for that matter (I'd give the margay the same climb as its run, and knock 10 feet off for the ocelot); give the raven an eagle's bite damage to make a parrot (actually regular ravens should have no claw damage at all, but should do 1d4 peck damage—they're not raptorines and don't use their talons, if their claws are even worthy of the name); take the parrot's fly speed away and you have a kakapo. You also don't need separate stats for deer and stags, since, y' know, stags are deer, and all.
  • I don't care for Pathfinder's flanderization of the races. Snooty elves, dirty ignorant goblins, workaholic dwarves? Why, what a bold new direction you're taking things in! If I were to do something that stupid (which I wouldn't), well, how about do it to humans for a change? Give every other race (except orcs and ogres) a +2 bonus to Spot checks to find humans—because of the smell. And make humans take penalties as if they were multiclassing even in their first class—"jack of all trades is master of none", after all.

    Personally I find it much more interesting to take the stereotype in a new direction. I've talked about my dwarves having a gift-economy, for example; that's something I hadn't seen people do with the "really love craft and wealth" stereotype. My goblins are a combination of the bugbears' stealth with the hobgoblins' warlike ways (and my "bugbears" are just the biggest, full-grown male hobgoblins). They are, however, still lawful evil—their stealth functions a bit like the Predator hunting-code. (My goblins don't eat intelligent beings, though, whereas my ogres—which includes orcs—do. Ogres and orcs just don't eat each other.)

    The elves in my campaign sometimes trick humans into dangerous situations, possibly including deadly ones—but only in adolescence, an age when (as an elf points out in the story I'm setting in my campaign) humans kill each other in duels over winks at bar-maids and break their neighbors' skulls in armed raids. My elves have some elements in common with Warcraft trolls, like axes and pointed teeth (though not tusks—and I made them the same height as humans now, though much lighter; bigger than humans was weird). I think their stealth, too, functions by a Predator-like code (cloak of elvenkind, anyone?), though of course it applies to fewer targets than the goblins'.
  • Decided that triangular casings on zled lasers requires just too big of triangles. A 6-centimeter (or, actually, 6.435—aliens, they don't use nice round numbers of our units) lens, to be inscribed in an equilateral triangle with a minimum "tube" thickness of .32175 cm (which is a nice round number relative to a zled unit), requires a side-length of 11.14575 centimeters. So decided that all their weapons are hexagonal; that means the 6.435 centimeter laser is only 8.17354 cm wide, which is much more doable (being almost exactly three centimeters less). (The hand-lasers, with 3.2175 cm lenses, are now only 4.4583 centimeters wide, where before they had been 5.5729 centimeters.)

    Also decided not to bother with scabbards for their swords: or at least, not fixed scabbards. Instead, both the swords and the lasers have retractable sheaths, which, in the swords, slide down from the hilt when a control is activated. The same control whips the sheath away as the sword is drawn, so it's out of the way when the speed-draw strikes. The guns, on the other hand, just have retractable lens-covers (which may well retract entirely into the casing when the laser's not in use—ultra-advanced materials don't have to be all that thick to protect the lens). Both laser and sword have some kind of automated hook-up that attaches them to weapon-belts, or to attachment-points on armor or spacesuits; part of what this change means is the speed-draw just became a much simpler motion, "unhook and attack" rather than "clear holster/sheath, attack".

    Pity I can't keep my long-gun iaido idea, though.
  • Female characters' armor being sculpted to their boobs does not offend me because it's sexist. It offends me because it's apparently a really bad idea; it's basically like sticking a splitting-wedge right over your sternum. And there are ways to have armor that doesn't have that problem while still making it look appealing. The "sweater-girl" look doesn't have a noticeable cleavage, and it's not exactly a burqah; armor can conform to feminine curves without being a liability. See, e.g., Cherche, from Fire Emblem: Awakening. And also Flavia and Sully.

    Incidentally, the "girl in skimpy armor" thing is not the same kind of problem. While it is a vulnerability, in real life, lots of people did fight like that. Watch a samurai movie sometime. There's always guys running around with only kote and suneate, and maybe a happuri. Armor, after all, is itself a liability, that's why we stopped wearing it for quite some time (in the West: east of, oh, Slovakia or so, people were wearing armor till right up into the 19th century). It's hot and heavy. That makes it a pain to slog around, especially for the smaller-framed (which, while it means your armor is smaller and therefore lighter, also means that so are your muscles). A woman would be quite likely to shed the heavy breastplate and just keep the armor for her arms, legs, and head.

    Yes, I just decided "to slog around" can be used transitively.

2015/04/12

De Romanicorum Physicalium 10

Pensées sur l'SF.
  • For those who are sanguine about the Pre-Tribulation Rapture Singularity, here's a little reminder of things Kurzweil thought would happen by 2010 (from a talk presumably somewhat before then):
    1. Images written directly to our retinas.
    2. Ubiquitous high-bandwidth connections to the Internet at all times.
    3. Electronics so tiny it's embedded in the environment, our clothing, our eyeglasses.
    4. Full-immersion visual-auditory virtual reality.
    5. Augmented real reality.
    6. Interaction with virtual personalities as a primary interface.
    7. Effective language technologies.
    #1 ain't happened. #2 ain't happened. #3 ain't happened. #4 ain't happened. #5 ain't happened. #6 is vague but if it means AI snerk, and if it means "virtual avatars" snerk, guffaw—it ain't happened, the only question is how ridiculous it was to think it would. And #7 ain't happened.

    That's a track-record that shoots right past Harold Camping and into William Miller/Samuel S. Snow country.
  • I think that zled skulls, while they have the flare at the back of the mandible, like a hippo, to accommodate a swell of jaw muscle, still have the wide-looped zygomatic arch, like on a felid's skull, because even though their jaw-muscles no longer attach on the top of their head, they still go most of the way up the sides. This translates to big "cheekbones".

    Also, instead of having that gap on the upper, outside edge of their eye-sockets, seen in most of the Carnivora and, indeed, in many other Laurasiatheria—bats, peccaries, pigs, rhinos, tapirs—their eye-sockets look like those of a tamarin attached to the zygomatic arch of a jaguar. Except, zled eyes (unlike mammal eyes but like bird ones) are immobile...and they have the sclerotic ring that supports that (they also have very shallow eye-sockets compared to mammals, which, one, gives more room to jaw muscles but two, and more importantly, lets them have more of the image in focus without having to move their eyes—a bird's eyeball is shaped like an M&M, a flattened ellipsoid rather than a spheroid).

    Reading up on tamarins suggests zledo are, in many ways, basically a carnivorous version of them; tamarins, after all, are mostly monogamous (I think a large minority of them are polyandrous), live in nuclear-family groups, and have anatomy that can be described as halfway between cat and (other) monkey—they have claws as well as thumbs, for example. They even have jaw-shapes designed to accommodate big muscles.
  • People are awfully optimistic about using graphene (2-d carbon hex-grids, like flat buckminsterfullerene—they sometimes make it by literally cutting nanotubes down the side and unrolling them) to store hydrogen. The trouble with storing hydrogen is its tendency to blithely outgas right through the very walls of the tanks; it's smaller than the gaps between the atoms most tanks are made of. One proposal is to bond the hydrogen directly to the graphene to make graphane; you can get it out again by heating it. Another is to have the graphene fold itself into "origami boxes" around the hydrogen; you get it out with an electric charge. But the origami-boxes are apparently only 9.7% hydrogen by weight. The rates I find for graphane with the hydrogen directly bonded vary by the alkali metal used as (I think) a catalyst for the bonding, but the rates listed are 12.20%, 10.33%, and 8.56%, for lithium, sodium, and potassium respectively. Meanwhile, boring old methanol gives a by-weight efficiency of 12.6%, and it's almost certainly cheaper even if you use a ruthenium-catalyzed process to get the hydrogen out. Water is 11.19%. Ammonia is 17.75%, and apparently you can separate it out with sodium amide, which costs very little; that, I think, is the real wave-of-the-future for hydrogen-powered vehicles.

    (Gasoline has exactly twice the energy density of ammonia, by volume, and six times by mass according to the only source for that second number I can find—ammonia isn't very dense—but fuel-cell vehicles are apparently 75% efficient while internal combustion engines are only 20% efficient, frittering away most of their energy as waste heat. Apparently you actually need 69% more ammonia to fuel a fuel-cell car than you do gasoline to fuel an internal-combustion one...but ammonia is literally 20 times cheaper. You'd probably close the gap, price-wise, with refrigeration: pure ammonia actually boils before room temperature, so you'd need something to keep it cold. A full-size Ford sedan only got 14.4 miles to the gallon in 1952, whereas one now gets 23, meaning you needed 60% more gas—and 1952 was the middle of the Golden Age of Route 66, so I don't think the fuel-economy will pose much of an issue.)

    I'm not sure what the solution is for space-travel, where every gram of wasted mass counts (every kilo of hydrogen, even if you store it as ammonia, comes with 5.63 kilos of "waste" nitrogen). Maybe just budget around outgassing a portion of your propellant. The current state of the art in storing (presumably gaseous) hydrogen, "quantum passivation", where you electropolish a stainless-steel pressure vessel to a mirror finish and then fire it in a furnace between 673 and 803 Kelvin, has an outgassing rate of 2×10-15 "torr-liters per second" (i.e. 2×10-15 liters per second at a pressure of 1 torr, which is 1/760 of a standard atmosphere). At that pressure, 1 liter of hydrogen masses 0.08988 grams, which means an outgassing rate of 1.7976×10-16 grams per second. Stainless steel hydrogen tanks routinely have pressures of 20 megapascals (150,012.337 times as big), which would give an outgassing rate of 2.696621810×10-11 grams per second, or .85 milligrams per Julian year, so I'm pretty sure you can take it. I think when you store it in liquid or "slush" form its outgassing-rate is reduced, though—my guess being you divide the gaseous-outgassing rate by what percentage of the mass of your liquid or slush hydrogen is actually bubbles of gaseous hydrogen. (Presumably for aerospace applications you're not going to use stainless-steel vessels, but then, for a spacefaring civilization you can probably get the same performance with other materials—if you google "quantum passivation" most of your results pertain to semiconductor research.)
  • Slush hydrogen, incidentally, is 16-20% denser than liquid hydrogen, meaning that every megagram of it takes up 11.29 to 11.86 cubic meters, instead of 14.11 cubic meters for liquid hydrogen (liquid hydrogen's density is 70.85 kg/m3, so slush's density is 84.35-88.56). Spacecraft propellant tanks are spheres (because they're the ideal shape for pressure-vessels); the slush-hydrogen ones require tanks 2.78 to 2.83 meters in diameter for a megagram of propellant, while those of liquid hydrogen need tanks 3.00 meters in diameter.

    Suppose you go with a rocket with dimensions comparable to, say, the SASSTO—but sporting a proton-chain rocket that gives an exhaust velocity of 10% c. (I find single-stage-to-orbit designs a good model for high-end "starship" type ships, I think I've mentioned that before.) If you go with the SASSTO's 10.34 mass ratio—remember, it's not the weight with propellant (97,976 Mg) over the dry weight (6,668 Mg), it's over the dry weight plus the payload (2,812 Mg, which brings the total to 9,480 Mg)—and a proton-chain rocket, you wind up with a speed you have to circle the block a few times to come down from. 7.5% c seems to be about the cutoff point to brake in a timely manner, for which you want a mass ratio of 4.5; that would bring the "dry" weight (if the payload is unchanged) up to 18960 and 4/9 Mg. It's up to you how you want to interpret the change; me, I interpret it as the ship getting bigger. Take the cube-root of the increase in mass, and you wind up with a SASSTO 26.63 meters long and 9.35 meters in diameter. (Incidentally, if you look at the SASSTO, I think the closest approximation to its volume—if you don't want to screw around with figuring out how to take the volume of each conic section of the tapering parts—is an ellipsoid.)

    Anyway. A 4.5 mass ratio means your interplanetary SASSTO carries 76,203 and 5/9 kg of propellant. Slush-hydrogen, max density, would require 860.45 cubic meters of tank to hold it all; supposing you cart that around in seven rings of seven balls each (the most efficient way of storing spheres is to stick them in hexagons, with one at each point and one in the middle), you get 49 spheres each 3.22 meters in diameter. A quick "eyeballing it" diagram in Inkscape suggests they'd come to a total of 19.1 meters long, if you nested them front-to-back as well as side to side (offset each ring by 90° and you can nest each sphere into the space between the spheres behind it); if not, of course, you're just getting (3.22×7=)22.54 meters. You probably have to make your ship longer to accommodate that; to keep the mass, remember to divide the diameter by the square root of whatever factor you increase the length by. Make it twice as long, for example, and you have to make it narrowed by a factor of √2.
  • Looks like DARPA has Jossed me. Their Warrior Web suit is worn not as chaps, but under the clothes like long underwear (sure, "wetsuit", that's what it's like). The Wikipedia article on DARPA (the Warrior Web project doesn't have its own entry) refers to it as an "exosuit". So I guess that's what I should call the equivalents in my books. Mark your calendars: on 5 May 2014, DARPA said they planned to actually equip a squad with them to compete against another squad in various carrying and mobility tasks—"30 months from today". Thirty months from then is 5 November, 2016.

    Also, things need 100 watts. An average laptop battery provides 72 kWh (or 259.2 MJ, if you prefer SI units like I do). That means it can power a Warrior Web suit for 720 hours, which as you may have noticed is thirty freaking days! I'm sure an "average laptop battery" is not what you want to be depending on in the middle of nowhere while people are shooting at you, but the point is, powering that for an extended period of time is not exactly Arc Reactor business for our current capabilities.
  • A four-minute mile—something else the suit's supposed to enable—doesn't sound all that impressive; it's the standard for all male middle-distance runners, although it was a standard that was breaking a record in 1954. But...middle-distance runners don't compete with a backpack and a rifle, wearing body-armor. A guy wearing an exosuit would take 23 seconds to close from the (arguable) effective range of the M4 carbine (it's actually effective to about 400 yards, but at 200 yards its performance starts dropping off rapidly, because of its shortened barrel), to its "battle zero" range (which seems to be 25 yards, in most sources I can find). He also needs 32 seconds to go from the effective range of the M1 Garand to its battle zero (440 yards to 200 yards—yes, the Garand's "zero" was the range at which the M4 starts to suck). That second number is important to me, remember, because my Peacekeepers' round is based on the .30-06.

    Some looking around on things that go that fast (other than middle-distance runners) revealed to me that I was wrong, zledo don't go as fast as bikes, when they run. They go faster. Well, not faster than racing bikes; those go 40 kilometers per hour, which I think I'd set as the specific speed of a running zled (a four-minute mile is 24 kph). But the average bike only goes 15.5 kilometers per hour. Zledo weigh the same as an ostrich, and while their legs aren't built like ostriches' (they're built more like a carnosaur's), the carnosaurs could put on impressive bursts of speed, with Allosaurus doing something in the 30-55 kph range. Zledo aren't distance-runners by any means (which is why they domesticated the zdhyedhõ'o, cursorial predators like giant dogs), but for trips of a couple of blocks they can do on foot what we'd need bikes to do. They can also, in a fight, jump 8 meters forward (closer to 10 with a running start) or 3 meters straight up. They come from a planet that's somewhere between the Mesozoic and the Pleistocene on the "murder world" scale, and it also has 8% higher gravity.
  • Atlas, the bipedal robot from the folks who brought you the BigDog (Boston Dynamics, a robotics company owned by Google but with, y' know, concrete accomplishments instead of eschatological bafflegab), has recently been equipped with a battery, instead of an off-board power tether. This battery is 3.7 kilowatt-hours, and powers the robot for an hour—so I guess we can conclude its typical operations require 3.7 kilowatts. (Convenient ratio, that.) A 3.7 kWh Li-ion battery would, apparently, weigh between 37 and 13.962 kilos (because they run from 100 Wh/kg to 265 Wh/kg). Atlas' mass is 150 kilos, so its power plant takes up 24.667% to 9.308% of its mass (that second number is very nice).

    Now, Atlas is not really that much like a really humanlike robot (I'll get to those in a second). It is, however (not least because it was made for DARPA) an excellent model for a walking mecha. Scale a 1.8 meter, 150 kilo Atlas up to 10 meters tall, and you get a mecha that weighs 25,720 kilos; assuming that power usage scales with mass, it uses 634.43 kilowatts to operate. We scaled its power-plant along with the rest of it, so its 2,394-6,344 kilo battery can still provide it with an hour of operation. You probably want it to operate for longer than an hour, though, so I'd go with lithium-air batteries for the mecha. Those (11.14 kWh/kg) give you, on the small end, 42 hours of operation, and on the large end, 111. Or go with a smaller battery, shorter operating times (hey, a full day of operation would only require 1,366.8 kilos) and use the extra weight for armor and weapons.

    Maybe I'll go with lithium-air batteries after all, for my mecha; methanol is less than half as good a power-source, only 5.472 kWh/kg compared to 11.14.
  • But for humanoid robots that you might actually mistake for human in good light and clothing other than a Mother Hubbard dress, the model has to be Kenshiro. (So, I guess Atlas, as a model for robots, is already dead.) Kenshiro is a Japanese robot that is actually scaled like a human, albeit a not-full-grown one—at 158 centimeters and 50 kilos, it's the size of a Japanese twelve-year-old boy (and about 4 kilos lighter, but roughly the same height, as an American thirteen-year-old girl). If it were as tall as Atlas, it'd only weigh 74 kilos.

    I can't find its power-usage stats; since its structure is monumentally more complex than Atlas it probably, at least for now, uses much more power. Eventually a day will come when they get it down to the energy use of a human being, which is 115 watts for a man the size of the scaled-up Kenshiro (and 105.5 watts for the original-sized version). Yeah, you can figure out how much power it takes to be you by converting your calorie intake to kilowatt-hours (hint, one kWh=3600 Joules) and then dividing by 24. (I just do it with Google's calculator.)

    Of course, a robot with performance superior to a human is probably going to mass more, and will certainly require a bigger power-pack to justify its superior power. You burn energy moving things, remember. Significantly superior strength would also require reinforced joints, which adds more weight and power-pack. This is the thing: while a robot could probably be given superior performance to a human, you can't realistically give it drastic upgrades and still let it ride around in our cars or pass for human for one second after it accidentally pulverizes someone's foot on a crowded sidewalk—and, again, power requirements. Tôka kôkan is the first law of a lot more fields than just alchemy.

2015/04/01

Spot Check V

Random thoughts + reality check. Per usual, mostly random reality checks.
  • In Tony Hillerman's The Dark Wind, an elderly Hopi says (rightly) that "tribal councils" are not how Hopis actually settle things; they are a bahana innovation, an artificial replacement of the kiva societies. But they are an innovation for the bahana too; when the bahana was at his best, his way of doing things would be to say to the Hopis—or the Irish, the Saxons, or the Basques—"What is your custom?" In Common Law in its pure form, the kiva societies would be the "tribal council"; for most of Irish history, even long after the Normans annexed them, matters were settled by councils with a similar makeup—basically one or very few clans—to the kiva-societies. The idea of introducing the forms of parliamentary democracy, to people who accomplish the exact same things by other means, is what gets you tied up "nation building" in places like Afghanistan (which isn't one "nation" in the first place, it's about a dozen).

    One thing I find very funny about that book is Hillerman's idea that the Navajo don't understand revenge. Poppycock. They don't understand it in the same way that whites do, but they certainly understand it; "war", after all, among Southern Athabascans, is entirely coterminous with "revenge-killing". The Apache traditions regarding war, as those regarding raiding, are pretty much the same as those of the Navajo, when the Navajo were still primarily raiders. And the way Apache (and therefore Navajo) war worked, generally, was a man would be killed on a raid (i.e. in self-defense against armed robbery—and remember that their raiding included enslavement). So his female relatives would demand revenge, and offer gifts, sometimes including marriage, to men who took up the cause and went out on the punitive expedition against whoever had killed the dead raider. Then they would go out, massacre as many members of the responsible group as they could get their hands on, and bring back adult captives to be tortured to death, and child captives to be raised as a a replacement for the dead raiders.

    Indeed, "an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth"—the actual phrase comes up in The Dark Wind—arose in the first place because the ancient Mesopotamians had tried it the Navajo way, and it just got lots and lots of people killed. The Navajo method assumes that after the single punitive expedition (and attendant massacre), the matter is closed, and that's the end of it. That, not a denial of revenge as such, is the real difference between Navajo and European custom—I can't fathom that Hillerman can have failed to know that. But, of course, the Navajo custom assumes you get to decide what is "the end of it". People whose words for metal are not "flint" and a modifier are not so naïve; around about the Bronze Age a person starts to realize, in Chesterton's words, "that, in the eyes of the other man, he is only the other man". If the other man happens not to consider it "ended", after you've massacred his people, and maybe wants to massacre yours right back, your choices are pretty much "fight until you're all dead", or else "figure out some form of revenge other than punitive massacre".
  • If you needed another problem with Interstellar—although "nitrogen-metabolizing organisms are making the plants die" is, again, the kind of thing Bert I. and Robert L. would look down their noses at—how about, they still have internal combustion engines? Working just fine, that is. On an Earth whose oxygen-levels are being depleted (because nitrogen-metabolizing organisms kill plants now, so there are fewer plants to exhale oxygen).

    I mean hey, it's not like oxygen and combustion have anything to do with each other. Why it's certainly not as though "combustion" is listed along with "corrosion" as one of the quintessential "oxidation-reduction reactions", or anything!

    I don't know, maybe it's somehow related to a Cracked article I read, which repeated, for the second time (the other was Tycho) the insane idea that "hard science fiction" means science fiction that uses "controversial" ideas from science, to, like, grapple with the "deep" questions, or some hippie crap. Actually, "hard" science fiction means it uses ideas from science. Like, period. Instead of, you know, stuff like "nitrogen-metabolizing organisms kill plants" or "appreciable time-dilation in the vicinity of a planet humans can walk around on unassisted".
  • Remember how Aristotle said women have fewer teeth than men? And how that's totally stupid and just shows you he never bothered to look? Yeah, well, apparently, in ancient Greece, women did have fewer teeth, on average, than men. Between breastfeeding and pregnancy, on the one hand, and universally sketchy nutrition on the other, Greek women were more prone to ailments that cause, among other things, tooth loss. (Those iron deficiencies nearly all women have to worry about, even now—because the human body thinks blood is a good agent to flush an unused uterine lining with—probably didn't help, either. Iron deficiency can contribute to gum disease, which can cause tooth-loss.)

    Of course, remember, the people who began the quaint legendry of Aristotle's not-bothering-to-look-in-women's-mouths also took till the 19th century to (re)discover the hectocotylus (penis, ish) of the octopus. Yep. When they first (re)discovered it in the body of a female (many squid detach theirs, during mating), they thought it was a parasitic worm. Aristotle already knew about it, though—and until he was proved right, that was the go-to example of his ignorance (possibly because women in Descartes's or Kant's day probably also didn't have as many teeth as men, nutrition and general health in the so-called "Enlightenment" being little better, if any, than in the 4th century BC).
  • I was thinking about how the American right-wing narrative is, like the left-wing one, an oppression-narrative where the intrinsically virtuous are exploited by the intrinsically vicious. It may not, however, be a "wer mit Ungeheuern kämpft" situation (although that too is almost certainly present); it might just be that both groups are fundamentally Gnostics. Literary critic Harold Bloom alleges that Gnosticism is the religion of America; certainly it was the religion, in the form of Freemasonry, of most of America's founders.

    In every kind of Gnosticism (though admittedly least in the Hermetic kind the Founders went in for), the evil principle(s) in the cosmos are motivated by, essentially, envy, of the good principles, and trap them in various kinds of illusory "law", to constrain their excellence. That's why spirit is "trapped" in matter. That, of course, is the current right-wing narrative peddled by sources as diverse as Ayn Rand and The Incredibles; you say "politics of envy", I say "King of Darkness becomes greedy for the World of Light". (Bloom himself identifies Marxism as "politics of envy", when in fact Marxism is actually just a different flavor of Bloom's own Gnosticism, merely locating the agents of the Archons and Aeons somewhere else.)
  • So by this point it is abundantly, almost tautologically clear that George Lucas has no idea what he's doing. And what's less obvious but no less true, is that he never did. For example, remember Marion, in Raiders (the first of the only two Indiana Jones movies that exist, the other being Last Crusade)? And how when they're reunited, she says "I was a child"? Yeah, well, originally, that was going to be literal. She was going to have been twelve when she and Indy first got together...oh, and she seduced him, which isn't creepy child-predator logic, or anything.

    And then the third installment, which was going to feature the Monkey King? Leaving to one side that the old stone monkey, the Heaven-Equaling Great Sage, would mop the floor with Nazis and then with Indy, for looking at him cock-eyed (not the most even-tempered Taoist Immortal, Sūn Wùkōng), is the fact that one of the side-plots has Indy get slapped by a student for cheating on her...with her mother...in her bed. Are...are we sure that the "Luke and Leia kissing" thing was really because Lucas hadn't decided they were going to be siblings yet? It's starting to look like he might've just thought "accidental near-incest" was high comedy.
  • Twice now on Cracked (as I discovered during the archive-binge that produced that Indiana Jones business, above) they've said movie monsters won't work, namely King Kong and Buckbeak in Harry Potter. Both are supposed to be too large to move, let alone run or fly. But in both cases, "extinct animals pulled it off" is the simple refutation of the point. Kong, for example, has a precedent: brachiosaurs are basically built like apes. Indeed, titanosaurs are built like that and even put most of their foreleg-weight on their metacarpals, although that's because they haven't got any phalanges, whereas apes fold theirs out of the way. The one counter would be that a dinosaur's respiratory system is much more efficient than a mammal's, so Kong might not be able to breathe—but gorillas have much shorter necks than sauropods, and even a mammal's crappy respiration doesn't seem to bother whales much.

    And as for hippogriffs, while Buckbeak's wings as depicted are almost certainly too small—fair enough—there have been animals his size that could fly. They're called azhdarchid pterosaurs. Arambourgiania philadelphiae stood as high as a giraffe, and walked in a somewhat similar posture (though its forelegs' length is metacarpals rather than phalanges)—but its torso is only somewhat larger than yours, dimensionally, but with much more muscle. It probably weighed a mere 250 kg, not that small considering its torso is only about as big as a 70 kg human's and its bones are hollow (pterosaurs are the closest non-dinosaur relatives of the dinosaurs, which are kinda known for their hollow bones, remember); hell, they could even jump right into the sky, which wouldn't at all be horrifying to see a giraffe-stork do. A hippogriff might spread its mass out a bit differently from a pterosaur—"torso only about as big as a human's" could give you a jaguar-sized griffon, think about it—but there's no reason that even the horse parts wouldn't have the same hollow bones as the eagle parts. Remember, the biggest ostriches only weigh as much as offensive linemen, despite being the size of Utahraptor.
  • You know the asinine atheist assertion that Hitler and the Nazis were totally Christians, because Gott mit uns belt-buckles? Let us leave to one side that the phrase has been a part of German military regalia and nationalist rhetoric since at least the Thirty Years War—and was as major a subject of mockery by the other side in the First World War as the "seventy virgins" thing in jihad is, in the War on Terror.

    Leave also to one side the demonstrable fact that Nazism is as obviously "Marx plus blood-and-soil nationalism" as Ceausescu's Romania. And the demonstrable fact that Nazi cosmology is Hegelianism with elements borrowed from Schopenhauer (I know, that's just another way of saying they were Marxists). And that the Reich's nationalized "churches" explicitly reject not only the Old Testament (so at the very least they are Marcionist supercessionists, not orthodox Christians) but, actually, God—the object of the worship of the Reichskirche is the Volk, not God, whose existence (save perhaps as immanent within the Volk) is denied.

    All those are true, but they are secondary. The primary point is that the same logic requires the atheist to admit that America is a Christian nation, and has been since 1864, because that's the year "In God we trust" was first put on the money. And money's just a bit more major than military belt-buckles. Only...America is not, strictly, a Christian nation (though it is a nation, statistically, of Christians); it is arguably a monotheist nation, but most of its founders were Unitarians.

2015/03/30

The Lights in the Sky Are Stars

I was thinking about interstellar colonization, and colonization generally, and how most of our current fictional treatments of it—specifically our explanations for why people do it—are stupid, either trying to terrorize or bribe mankind, and in both cases with lies. On the one hand you have the over-population thing, or other far-fetched, snowball's chance in hell disaster scenarios necessitating the abandonment of Earth; on the other you have warmed-over Tsiolkovskian mystagoguery, the silly idea that merely hurtling through space in microscopic metal tubes instead of on a pinprick-sized lump of rock will somehow grant some kind of spiritual insight. I call the first, as you know, "apocryphal apocalypses"; the latter I think I'll call "epiperipheral epiphanies". (Yes, in this context it's just a twenty-dollar word for "shallow". But it's worth forking over the Jacksons to get the euphonious parallelism.)

Interstellar, incidentally, actually manages to combine the two in one thing: it's got both an apocryphal apocalypse and an epiperipheral epiphany. (Late Addendum: Apparently, that's no coincidence, and the apocryphal apocalypse is actually in service to the—tired, indescribably shopworn—epiperipheral epiphany.)

But neither is valid. Other than a very, very broad "not all eggs in one basket" type of thing (which, again, space-habitats in the Lagrange points, not interstellar colonization), there simply isn't anything scary or urgent enough to warrant an undertaking of the scale of space-colonization (not even of the scale involved in building O'Neill Islands, really). And there really is no God out there—again, not who's not much more conveniently reachable right here. How many of you have genuinely gotten your minds around the fact that space is not "the heavens"? Not as many as ought to have, if the fact this drivel manages to resonate with so many is any indication.

No, the only real reason for space-colonization is "because it's there". And, well, also, "because we're here—and we could just as well be there". All of the stars are suns like ours. It might be wrong to take them from someone else, but if nobody else has claimed one, or its planets—which are all worlds just like this one, not special, as Buridan offended the Peripatetics by insisting—then it does no harm for us to add them to our collection.

Rather than needing a reason for interplanetary or interstellar colonization (coming up with which always requires very far-fetched story-distortions), the actual question is why not to colonize. "More people living more places" is an intrinsic good, and the burden of proof is on him that would deny those seeking after an intrinsic good. The funny thing about humans is that anything they may want is, in and of itself, good—they couldn't want it, otherwise—and any evil attendant on a particular desire can only be circumstantial, through desiring the good in question to the exclusion of higher priorities, or under the wrong conditions. So "a place for humans to live" is, in and of itself, a good, a reason to seek space-habitation, and possibly worth making the necessary sacrifices (provided that one is smart and minimizes the sacrifices necessary—otherwise the good in question will have skipped over into "to the exclusion of higher priorities").

Incidentally, this post's title phrase—which appears not only in Gurren Lagann but as a chapter-title in The Coattails of God: The Ultimate Spaceflight—The Trip to the Stars, by Robert M. Powers—is a book by Fredric Brown, from 1953. It's about an aging astronaut in a future (the 1990s, it was written in 1953) where, after flights to the Moon and Venus (maybe Mars?), all the space-exploration budgets get slashed (tell us again how amazingly prescient Wells' "land ironclads" were!). The guy and a senator basically work together to push through funding for a Jupiter mission. It also predicts the fall of the Soviet Union, another piece of prescience very unusual for science fiction writers till, oh, 1989, and pretty much unheard of in 1953.

2015/03/25

De romanicorum theoriarum X

Spec fic thoughts.
  • I know I have mentioned that transhumanism shares an origin with Russian Cosmism. Apparently that's actually fairly widely acknowledged; both are quasi-millenarian eschatologies attached to the then-current "hot" technology. But apparently its links to space-weirdness are much more immediate than that. A comment, on an article about how "mind uploading" is the desire to have your Pre-Tribulation Rapture and eat it too, was about how a lot of the early transhumanism conjecture was originally think-tank speculations about space colonization. Mostly from the L5 Society, a space-colonization advocacy group closely associated with the ideas of Gerard K. O'Neill (it's since, according to Wikipedia, merged with the National Space Institute).

    For example, the original form of the "abolish involuntary death" thing? Suspended animation for interstellar missions. The original purpose of a lot of their AI speculation was for making long-range unmanned missions able to cope with the unexpected. Apparently Drexler, of "coined the term 'gray goo'" fame, originally began speculating about nano-tech in the context of, e.g., nano-engineered materials for solar sails. His original idea was bionic, the tech modeled on organic, living structures and their operations (that's what "bionic" means, you know—it's a synonym of "biomimetic", although that term is more specific—remember, contrary to what the Devil's Catechisms called thesauruses teach, synonyms are seldom wholly coterminous).

    And honestly, considering their origins, I'm kinda glad they morphed into transhumanism. Bad video games and funding research into the intrinsically impossible are a long sight easier to take than a Colony Drop. (And maybe it's a good thing we're nowhere near having colonies yet: crash the ISS into the planet at the speed of a typical asteroid impact, and it only hits with 14.5 kilotons of force. That's about 2/3 as big as the Little Boy, admittedly, but not an extinction-level event. Crash an Island Three into the planet at that speed—assuming its mass varies from that of an Island One, 95.5 teragrams, as much as its volume does, 22,869 times—and it hits with 75.4 teratons of force, almost exactly 3/4 the force of the Chicxulub impact.)
  • I don't have anywhere in my books to put something of the sort, but apparently there's a bird (that might also be a dromaeosaur) called Microraptor. Apparently it was very common in China in the Early Cretaceous—being the size of a pigeon or small crow, and probably living like a pigeon (it probably wasn't smart enough to live like a crow). They think they mostly glided but also, occasionally, flew. The reason they think Microraptor mostly glided (also the reason I bring it up)? Well...it had four wings. We've got the preserved impressions of the flight feathers on its hindlegs.

    In other "weird dinosaur anatomy" news, though not that extreme, did you know parrots have a hinge on their upper jaw? It's called the craniofacial hinge; I think it changes the leverage for cracking nuts. And then there's the fact ostriches are not the only birds with claws in their wings ("ostriches have claws in their wings", just to get us all on the same page). Owls, chickens, and waterfowl often do too. As in normally, not like those occasional humans born with tails. It's not just hoatzins (which have claws as adults, they're just only particularly useful when they're chicks).
  • Was thinking about Talos, and Sigmar, and the Emperor of Man—so about Sigmar, basically. The people who wrote Warhammer Fantasy Battle, and those who copied them (some of them were probably copying themselves), were obviously trying, by their divinized emperor, to make a low-calorie substitute for Christianity, for their fantasy setting. Leaving to one side the fact many if not most historic "Emperors" were divinized, without creating something much like Christianity...Christianity is actually the exact opposite. Christ is not divinized man, man exalting himself; he is humanized God, God abasing himself.

    Interestingly, I think, the rather vague concept of "the Light", in Warcraft, achieves a much closer result—since The Light is at least an overarching cosmic reality one might describe as "the form of the Good". Talos is just Lorkhan, Sigmar is just ancestor-worship, and the Corpse on the Golden Throne is just the Collective Unconscious given human shape—none of which is remotely comparable to what "God" means, in the "Judaeo-Christian" context. One gets the impression that the writers of Warhammer, and their imitators, think that God is a god. And he really, really isn't. He's not even a being; he's Being.

    (One is reminded of those atheists, often to be found in the comboxes of Christian websites, who think that disbelief in the Christian God is a thing like disbelief in Odin. This casts their oft-repeated catchphrases about "Bronze Age myth" into sharp relief—because the idea that God was "a particular god", the only one they were allowed to worship, was actually the position of the Jews in the earliest days of their religion...which is the terminal phase of the Bronze Age. By the time we get to the First (Solomon's) Temple, we're already well into the Iron Age. Identification of Ha-Shem with Ultimate Reality—understanding of the true significance of his Name, and abandonment of "henotheism" for monotheism—can only be definitively placed to the Second Temple period, either due to contact with Persian thought, or even because of contact with Platonism in the Hellenistic era.)
  • Not directly speculative-fiction, but certainly relevant to more than a little of it, is the interesting fact that not one of the "big three" New World civilizations is referred to by the right name. "Maya", for example, is a term used only by the Yucatec and Itza' ("Yucatec", incidentally, is not their name, being Nahuatl—"Maya" is). From what I can tell, and as I believe I've mentioned before, the only collective term for "Mayan"-speaking cultures is something along the lines of "Yoko T'an", which probably means "clear talkers", i.e. "not babbling barbarians".

    "Clear speech" is also what "Nahuatl" means, as distinct from "nonoalcah" (s. "noalcatl"), the babbling-barbarian "deaf-mutes". And while we're at it, nobody was ever called "Aztecs"; the term, again, is forbidden, since Aztlan is the Place of Emergence and that's always esoteric. The people we usually think of by that term actually called themselves Mexica (whence "Mexico") or Tenochca (after their center, Tenochtitlan...which would become Mexico City); their chief rivals were the Tlaxcaltecah of the Tlaxcala Alliance. If there is a collective term for Nahuatl-speaking peoples, other than something deriving from "Nahuatl", I think it's "Colhua", which means something like "people with ancestors", i.e. "civilized"; their specifically city-dwelling "civilized" portion (which was never all Nahuatl-speakers) might have been called Toltecah, which means literally "reed people" but idiomatically "artisans", and is always contrasted with Chichimecah "savages".

    Finally, the Inca: "inka" is just their word for "aristocrat". Calling the whole society that is like calling the Hohenzollern state "the Junker Empire". The "Inca Empire" was actually known as "Tawantinsuyu", which means "(State of) the Four Directions". The people themselves seem to have been called simply "Runa" or "Nuna", which (per usual) means "people", although the Spanish called their language(s) "quechua", from something like "ketsua", which seems to mean the temperate altitudes in the Andes that are suitable for growing corn (so, metonymically, something like "corn-growers", if it were a demonym).
  • Tried to get into "Dantalion no Shoka". Nothing doing. See, the guy's a British aristocrat. Worse, his uncle seems to have been killed (I seem to recall there's actually more to it than that) by a rival book-collector.

    If the phrase "rival collector" made the words "18th century cow-creamer" spring unbidden to your lips, you have the same problem I do. Namely, P. G. Wodehouse has utterly demolished any mystique the British aristocracy could possibly have. You might as well try to pass off Martha's Vineyard as Innsmouth.

    This is also a major problem, for me, with Black Butler—although that series' soul-blighting badness, in every possible regard (well, I guess its art looks okay), is of course a bigger factor.
  • I keep criticizing the the unexamined assumption of a lot of science-fiction writers, that wars between species would be genocidal. Part of the problem, I think, is an assumption—accurately associated with the Nazis, who actually acted on it, but actually common to almost all of "late modernity"—that conflict between human groups is characterized by genocide. But...it never was. Like, ever. Aside from the fact that, as I've said, Genghis Khan or Attila the Hun would find the idea blasphemously bloodthirsty, there's another issue: the vast majority of human cultures have not been "civilized". And hunter-gatherers and pastoralists don't have the concept of genocide, because they are (again contrary to the mythic chanting of our Lysenkoists) not collectivist enough.

    It's true. Pace hopped-up chorus girl with a social-work degree noted anthropologist Ayn Rand, collectivism is civilization, except where that civilization is leavened with elements of (the shocking blasphemy makes David Brin rend his garments and cry aloud on Azathoth the Blind Idiot God) "feudalism". Both Upper Paleolithic societies like those of the Australian Aborigines, and Neolithic cultures that don't live in cities, like most Native Americans, simply don't think of people as "members of a particular category" the way Greeks or Romans (or "Enlightenment" Europeans) do. Neither do Iron Age non-"civilized" societies, like the Norse or Zulus. Most of them, instead, only think of two categories. See, the reason so many ethnonyms mean "friendlies" (lakȟóta) or "our own people" (svíar) is because "people who speak my language—and therefore aren't appropriate targets for raiding" is one of two dichotomous categories...and all the rest of humanity is lumped together in the other, "foreign devils who could stand to be relieved of their property". (Pace Rand again, "not raiding them" is generally one's sole responsibility to non-kin "fellow tribesmen", in such societies—there's a reason "civic duty" has the word for "city" in it.)

    Because un-"civilized" people lump all mankind together into "strangers", the idea of eliminating all the "strangers" is automatically ridiculous—because no such culture is stupid enough to like its chances, trying to murder all the rest of mankind. That kind of ambition requires a much more "global" reach than any "uncivilized" culture even pretends to be capable of. And even most ancient civilizations, whatever their conquering ways, would regard eliminating the people of a subjugated tribe as insanely cruel and evil; they were content to impose their laws and culture, generally not all that deeply in the latter case (the Gauls, Britons, or Egyptians were none of them very Romanized, and there's a reason Cantonese people are a very different culture from northern China). Even enslavement, although predicated (in both the civilized and the not) on "I have spared your life, now you're mine", was not conceptualized as "I spared you from the annihilation that is the due of the outsider", but merely "I have chosen not to kill you, as I totally get to, during wars or raiding against whatever 'strangers' happen to be handy". No; genocide is an idea unique to the "Enlightenment"—just like how even the Sun King would've regarded it as gross overreach to try to annihilate the Basque language.
  • I should hope that you know "evolving into pure energy" is ridiculous. But do you know how ridiculous? Well. I crunched the numbers, I was bored.

    Every organism—essentially every conceivable organism, since it's very difficult to predicate "life" of a fusion-plasma—only actually uses one kind of energy, chemical, the energy binding electrons to protons. An average of 3.2 million times more energetic than chemical energy, is fission, which involves the energy binding protons and neutrons together in the nucleus. And then, about an order of magnitude more energetic than fission, is fusion, which is the energy required to crush atomic nuclei into entirely new atoms. Finally, one hundred times as energetic as fusion, is the conversion of matter to energy. That is to say, "becoming energy" is one thousand times as energetic as fission, and 3.2 billion times as energetic as metabolism.

    And you think someday your guts will "evolve" to the point of being able to accomplish this? That, after all, is where energy comes from, for the kinds of things whose evolution we're talking about: shoving dead things into orifices, and rotting them in specialized composting-organs. Please, demonstrate the tendency to develop so much as a fission process, in metabolism, before you wax sanguine about the prospect of matter-energy conversion! Kindly explain the process by which an organism will acquire its "Mr. Fusion" organ—since that presumably must exist in some intermediate stage between life "as we know it" and this mass-to-energy apotheosis.

2015/02/28

Rannm Thawts Five

Random, as I said, thoughts. 536 is 23 × 67
  • Turns out, I may have been wrong—it might be possible to ferment mushrooms into alcohol, without creating methanol. You just have to break the chitin down into fructose first, for which, apparently, you use bacteria cultures—specifically of the Vibrio genus, which are the agent responsible for seafood-associated gastroenteritis, and also are the thing that breaks down all the chitin the world's aquatic arthropods shed. Maybe in a fantasy setting you store your mushrooms in jars with raw oysters?

    The Vibrio bacteria break the chitin down into sugar; you have to use raw mushrooms, since a cooked mushroom's chitin content drops from 8% to 2.7%. Then you boil the resulting sugar, perhaps with the remains of the mushrooms, which kills the bacteria. Then you add your yeast and ferment as normal. I would think the non-chitinous parts of the mushroom lend a flavor to the resulting brew, too.

    Of course, the genus Vibrio is best known for a little fellow called Vibrio cholerae—and notice what the specific name is. Compared to cholera, even methanol from moonshine is nothing to worry about. Though, you'd probably use V. parahaemolyticus, which usually causes much milder, food-poisoning kind of symptoms, and is found in freshwater snails. (And, again, boiling solves the problem, and it's a part of all brewing.)
  • I don't know if you recall, but I had expressed a wish for a JRPG that didn't feature some eighth-grader's attempt at deconstruction. You know, where every character, group, and institution didn't have a bunch of dark secrets and hidden agendas.

    It's called Fire Emblem, and it also features an actually half-decent romance mechanic and, in the latest one, Awakening, time-travel that isn't crap. I don't play turn-based JRPGs for "challenge", so I play it on "normal" difficulty and "casual" mode—especially that second one, because without it, people can get killed in your fights, and that's no fun. (Although I still don't know how the alternative works, because whenever I lose a character, I reset, exactly as I would without the casual-mode on.)

    A tip: play it in Japanese. Aside from Awakening having Ono Daisuke, Kana Asumi, Sawashiro Miyuki (!!), and Koyasu Takehito, is the fact they haven't done a good job dubbing a game into English since Infinite Undiscovery in 2008. Be warned, though, the "subtitles" are actually the close-captioning of the English (I think—confirming the suspicion would require playing it with English voices, and that ain't happening), and often aren't actually what the Japanese says—to the point of "Kega de wa arimasen ka?" being translated "Hang on tight!" (it means "Are you unhurt?").
  • Searching the blog suggests I haven't mentioned it before, but if I have, excuse the repetition: zled milk is solid at room temperature, rendered liquid by their body temperature. How? Zledo, like ostriches (which have the same mass) have a body temperature of 313 Kelvin (40° Celsius, 104° Fahrenheit). Cheeses begin to melt long before that point, and not having been cultured, it doesn't have the kind of protein-matrix that holds cheese together up to c. 322 K (49° Celsius/120° Fahrenheit) or even higher.

    Now, it doesn't exactly turn into "cheese", per se, when it cools—more a nutritious wax (although arguably that's what cheese is), something like lanolin, which has a melting point of 311 K/38° Celsius/100° Fahrenheit. (The Lhãsai mammary is a sebaceous gland, while the Earth one is probably a sweat gland.) The milk of zledo is still consumed in liquid form (because they nurse), but when they consume the milk of domestic animals (mostly zdhyedhõ'o, the dog-horse things), they don't drink it, they eat it. (Its texture when cold is more like soft cheese—brie, say, or camembert—or even like butter, than it is like lanolin, though; they slice it.)
  • This won the 2013 Best Short Story Nebula, and was nominated for the 2014 Hugo in the same category. And truly, the writer displays an ability to touch the emotions reminiscent of...Edward D. Wood, Jr.

    Because seriously, this is a level of risible bathos on par with Bride of the Monster. Maybe, just maybe, this...textual output...can work its way up to the artistic level of a Roger Corman flick—something like, say, It Conquered the World. But I wouldn't get my hopes up. (Maybe get Beverly Garland to give it a whirl—though it might be beyond even her talents, in a way that even "act like this is a threat" wasn't.)

    Is it impolite to point out it's "T. rex", not "T-Rex"? Or that they didn't have any voices at all, "rough, vibrating" or otherwise? They also, if they had any lips at all (see previous post—dinosaurs probably didn't have much in the way of lips, along with their lack of real cheeks), certainly didn't have the kind that can be curled back to bare "fangs".

    Ed Wood III here, in her author-profile, says her husband is a "dinosaur fanatic". It's funny to me because this is obviously some weirdass "hurt-comfort" fantasy of theirs where he also gets to be a paleontologist (never mind the kind of physique, mien, and bearing that generally go with field-work like that). It's also heavy-laden with ideologized adolescent persecution-complex. And this not only got published in an actual magazine—an alleged SF magazine, no less—it also got the Nebula, and could've got the Hugo! (This is starting to look less like work of the Ed Wood/Roger Corman kind and more like work of the Legato Bluesummers/Sephiroth variety.)
  • Scorpion may be the world's single worst show. Like, ever. Its basic conceit is "stupid person's idea of smart people"; and it's risibly implausible from its smallest details to its overaching plot-structure. It is, in other words, an infinite fractal of jaw-dropping incompetence, every aspect of its creative enterprise being one-dimensional yet having mathematical properties that let it resemble a surface.

    This show is so bad, my father—who sat through the reboot of Battlestar Galactica until the very end, when the whole rest of our family had bugged out in the second season (he had no illusions about its quality, he just has a very high threshold of pain)—was either the first or the second to decide, after only the first episode, that it was not worth watching.

    Plus, seriously, writing the title the official way—"</Scorpion>"—is moronic. It's annoying to write in an HTML editor (because it gets interpreted as code, and thus vanishes, if you don't write it with "character entities"), which completely neuters the point of having it, in this day and age. Why did they do that—did they realize they were going to get mocked for thinking "nothing says hip and edgy like closing your nonsensical XML tags"? What does the "scorpion" tag indicate, anyway—and who would need it? (Mortal Kombat's code probably doesn't include a lot of XML.) At least the forward slash in Face/Off won't make it instantly vanish if you write it that way, outside of the file-system of a PC.
  • Did some research. There's a guy in my third book who has electric-eel type electrocytes replacing some of the muscle-tissue of his forearms—letting him deliver shocks with his hands. (He's a transgenic assassin with the genes of electric eels spliced into his DNA. His partner is a girl with the genes of poison-dart frogs, who can kill anyone whose mucous membranes touch hers—except for him, because he's also got genes from the fire-bellied snake, Liophis epinephelus, the only known predator of dart-frogs, in his saliva glands and mucous membranes.)

    What I was researching was whether his powers also work on zledo. A lethal current for a human is, apparently (sources vary, but I'm going off what the electric eel article on Wikipedia says is the minimum to cause heart fibrillation), 700 milliamperes for longer than 30 milliseconds—an electric eel applies 1000 milliamperes over 2 milliseconds, which is why they seldom kill humans unless they stun them and cause drowning. Our assassin friend can flex his electrocyte-muscles longer than an eel can, though (I guess 21 milliseconds is necessary, at one whole amp?); he's a human being with willpower and spec-ops training. Also, eels don't know, and aren't anatomically set up, to grab both of their enemy's biceps at the same time, to be sure current goes through his heart (although they do coil around the chests of animals, which isn't creepy at all).

    It was hard to research this: if we're supposed to be able to find "anything" on this wonderful Internet thing, can you tell me how strong a current has to be to induce electronarcosis in an ostrich? I found out how strong to do it to a calf, though (a calf at typical slaughter-weight is the same size, c. 100 kg, as a female zled), and it's 1250 milliamps. (It doesn't say for how long, probably a couple dozen milliseconds like a human.) I think I can conclude—since he hasn't got the amperage to stun or kill a female zled, let alone a male one—that no, his powers do not work on adult zledo, even without the fact their military uniforms have an energy-dissipating lining. He'd probably go after the exposed head, going for electronarcosis instead of cardiac arrest, anyway, if the zled was not his target.
  • So...I had to describe part of an adolescent character's school-day, on a planet with a different day-length from Earth. I'm not complaining; it's cool to describe daily life under circumstances other than ours. I consider that the sine qua non of science fiction. But it forced me to come up with a way to do timekeeping on that kind of planet. And, as always, when there's already a real solution to the issue, I use the real solution.

    When NASA sends a probe to Mars, its timekeeping consists of dividing Mars' day (24 hours 37 minutes 22 seconds) into 24 hours of 60 minutes of 60 seconds. Those seconds, though, are 2.7% longer. So I did the same thing. One thing that's interesting is, if humans and aliens both do this, the difference of their units becomes, on every planet, the same as the number of units they divide the day into.

    What I mean is, zledo divide their day into 12 zbeihõlto of 120 aecho of 120 dothã'o; in terms of their equivalent of "Julian" time, their time-units are not evenly divisible by ours (because their day is not the same length ours is). But on a colony world, where they and we redefine the base unit (second and dothã) according to the stellar day's length, theirs is simply twice what ours is—because they divide a day into exactly twice as many dothã'o as we do into seconds.
  • It is occasionally said, and truly—therefore not often enough—that writers' workshops have ruined more than one good writer. The essential problem is that a lot of people, for one reason or another, turn off their brains when asked to evaluate a narrative work. I don't know if they're trying to be helpful, and assume that the audience is entirely composed of oblivious thickheaded children, or what, but they certainly act as if that's what's going on.

    For instance, a student film by the ane-ue, this one, with the ghost train. Did you notice the wanted poster of No-Name, there right at the beginning? Yes, well, when ane-ue was getting feedback on her storyboards from her class, somebody asked, and I quote, "What does she have that the bounty hunters want?" You know. The woman on the wanted poster. What does she have, that the bounty hunters want? Gee, Davy, do you think it might be a bounty on her head?!

2015/02/18

De romanicorum theoriarum IX

Speculative fiction thoughts.
  • Has anyone ever considered that maybe what they like about the laughable drivel that passes for worldbuilding in Firefly is that there's nothing there? And thus they can project their own personal prejudices into it? Or you explain how so many right-wingers managed to think a Joss Whedon work was not a very long-winded personal attack on them, specifically.

    Or put another way, Firefly's setting is the worldbuilding equivalent of Bella Swann. Its "flaws", after all, are about as realistic as her alleged clumsiness and unpopularity—in this otherwise fascistically exploitative setting, we have a form of squeaky-clean sanitized prostitution that never has nor ever could exist (let alone in a totalitarian society), because Whedon wants to fantasize about dignified "spiritual" whores. Just like how Bella is supposed to be so clumsy and dorky and gawky, and yet four guys practically ask her out in the first chapter, because Meyer's audience wants to fantasize about turning down lots of suitors before they get Mr. Right.

    But at least Twilight is a bleached-britches bodice-ripper where all the bodices are ripped offstage; nobody expects coherence. What's Whedon's excuse for whitewashing prostitution, the most efficient means of producing misery the human race has ever invented? A less charitable person might suggest a common origin between Firefly's paeans to the beauty of the sex-trade and the fact its good guys are the Space Confederacy. (The charitable explanation—that the Browncoats lack the moral ambiguity of the Graycoats merely because Whedon and Minear are too unintelligent and immature to grapple with the moral complexities of the Civil War—is also the one that fits the facts, namely that Whedon and Minear are a pair of rock-stupid adolescents.)
  • There are exactly two types of birds with cheeks, I discover. Parrots (most noticeable on the largely bare-cheeked macaws), and the california condor. And there are no muscles in the condor's cheeks, they're just an extension of its dewlap. Aside from the interest of this to paleo-artists (because exactly two extant dinosaurs have cheeks, and they almost certainly developed them quite late), is its interest to science fiction writers. Do your aliens have cheeks? Now would be a pretty good time to consider it.

    Zledo have cheeks, and indeed lips much like mammals (though more like a cat's than a human's, hence why they can't say "F"), but the flesh, its keratins being in β-sheets, probably looks a bit more like that of macaws (except a different color, and at no point giving way to beak). Khângây don't have cheeks, they have only as much "lip" as lizards, and produce sounds that other species perceive as "labial" with their extremely complex vocal apparatus, the same way birds do. (They also don't have teeth, they have cutting-surfaces like armored-jawed fish.)

    ...I just decided right now that thoikh don't have cheeks or lips, meaning when they talk it looks unsettlingly like their face splits in half...and their teeth, which are onyx-colored, fold backward when their mouths close, like a snake's (although they look more like a crocodile's). They also, I think, have a second row of teeth in the roof of their mouth, again like a snake. (I imagine that they pronounce "labial" sounds through clenched teeth, instead—presumably you can still get some air through when your teeth fold against each other—which sounds a bit like a V. That might be what khângây languages do, actually, although their vocal apparatus also lets them mimic the sounds people with lips make.)
  • Hey, here's a wild idea: stop teaching the same stuff in English class that was taught 100 years ago. No, this isn't a "dead white men" argument; it's a "let's teach a new set of dead white men" argument. A hundred years ago we were already teaching, or at least encouraging students to read, Dickens, in schools. But Dickens? Pot-boiling pulp magazine writer.

    Do you know who we should be reading in school now, or at least encouraging students to read? Burroughs (Edgar Rice, not William S.); Howard (Robert E.); Lovecraft; Smith (Clark Ashton). The whole Campbell SF stable, too. For literary quality, although not vastness of scope, I'll put any of those dudes (maybe not Lovecraft or the Campbell guys) up against Dickens any day of the week. And hey, you want kids to learn about existentialism in literature? Well cupcake, where you think they'd rather learn it from, Waiting for the Frigging Play to End Already Godot by Samuel "Black Lotus" Beckett...or Conan the Cimmerian?
  • You may or may not recall that in 1st and 2nd Edition D&D, elves had level-limits. (They also "do not die" at their final age-category, but departed via not-the-Grey-Havens-at-all, which tended not to make much sense in most campaign-settings.) And then there's the stick-in-the-mud ultraconservative portrayal, mostly a caricature by stupid people who don't know the difference between "chaotic good" and "lawful neutral". But it occurred to me, there's another way to model elves. Ravens are only playful and curious for the first three years of their lives. After that, around the time they usually mate (they are physically mature at a year old but don't usually mate till three), they become strongly neophobic, hating new things and having a lot of trouble adapting to new locations or conditions. What if your elves were the same way, only desiring new experiences until they hit their middle-age category, and then becoming strongly averse to anything different from what they're accustomed to?

    It's not exactly how I'm doing it in my campaign, although I think elements of it will be, but it is an interesting idea. It's also a lot less stupid than "people who live a long time must be really boring", never mind that "boredom" is only a part of your emotional repertoire because your life is so short (and thus you can't afford to waste much of it). Elves, having so much more time to kill, are probably endlessly fascinated by things you barely even notice (hey, why'd you think they have a bonus to Spot checks?), and continue to find joy in their pleasures long after humans would become jaded and sated. (That part, that they don't get bored as easily as humans, is definitely something I think my elves do; I might have humans shocked by how much they enjoy things that humans usually outgrow. "Ancient yet seemingly childlike" is often an aspect of the portrayal of elves, after all, and Chesterton actually points out the connection between that and the fact boredom is due to human weakness, I think it's in Orthodoxy.)
  • Zledo, at this point, are only "felinoid" very broadly speaking. You could also call them "long-armed tyrannosaur-apes", and they've got frog-feet and shark-pupils in bird-eyes, and a dental arrangement not found on Earth, and their "fur" is equally well-described as "really simple feathers" (and some of what their fliers got, you can cross out those first two words).

    And I decided quite some time ago actually, their jaw anatomy, at the back of the jaw, isn't like humans, cats, or tyrannosaurs—it's like pygmy hippos. Go look up their skulls: on the back of a hippo's jaw is a deep rounded "bowl", for holding giant muscles. I think zledo have this (which gives them a rather heavy, tyrannosaur like jaw, although their big eye-sockets and braincase make it less noticeable) because I don't think I can swing a sagittal crest anymore, not considering they have a brain volume like a slightly scaled-up Neanderthal.
  • In my D&D world—where, recall, elves mostly use axes and dwarves seldom do—I decided, the gnomes' weapons are martial versions of the sickles they use to harvest mushrooms (which are the basis of their material culture; fungi are made of chitin, not cellulose, so they can breed mineralized forms to approximate metals, like the hard parts of bugs). I use the stats for (Small-creature versions of) the khopesh and its relatives (like the sapara and kukri), although a real khopesh's cutting-edge is on the outside, because they actually derive from axes, not sickles. (Gygax was probably misled by the kopis, the Greek sword-sized kukri.)

    I also give the gnomes the sling as their main missile weapon, which is implied by the Arms and Equipment Guide (which I just got), since gnomes are alchemists (although that book also seems to think gnomes are tech-guys, and they aren't, except on Krynn and in space). Likewise, I gave my halflings (a subrace of humans in this setting) blowguns instead of slings and rocks, and gave them a partial protection from poisoning themselves when using poison darts; they don't regard the use of dart-poison as evil, although they do regard using poison in food as not only evil but as flat-out diabolism. Nomads regard hospitality as sacred, after all.

    Incidentally, you may be aware that the only reason D&D druids use scimitars is that Gygax didn't want to bother coming up with stats for sickles (never mind a sickle is for all intents and purposes somewhere between a knife and a hand-axe). But really, it makes perfect sense for D&D druids to use scimitars, because, um..."machete". Kinda a natural fit for people who spend a lot of time in dense plant-life, you know?
  • Researching the previous post, I came across quite a bit of information on bats and birds that didn't make it in. Bats, basically, are the helicopters to birds' jets. They have superior maneuverability in certain regards, like being able to hover, but they're much slower, can't go nearly as far, and have a hard ceiling on how high they can fly (although unlike helicopters, it's less a matter of physics than of anatomy—mammal lungs are simply inferior).

    Another interesting point is, because of how bats' wings are set up, they function in many ways more simply than bird wings. See, a bat's wing is all connected, so (like helicopters) they can't change the shape of their flight surfaces (and can't glide), and have to do all their maneuvering by how they beat the air. A bird's wing, on the other hand, because it's not a continuous tissue but many independently articulated feathers, can be controlled like the elevators, ailerons, and so on of an airplane.

    Had a thought, in studying that: what if a species evolved flat, flipper-like arm-wings, that didn't fuse their fingers, but instead turned each finger into an independent flight-control surface? I think that's what the main fliers of the khângây homeworld will do.

2015/02/13

Blood and Bones and Feathers II

Xenobiology thoughts.
  • Did you know that manatees don't have eyelids? Nope. Their eyeball sits in a sphincter, and they push it out (to open the eye) or in (to close it) by the same mechanism that lets you swallow and vomit (to use the least disgusting example I could think of). Not saying your aliens have to do something that weird—I mean, sharks have eyelids like ours—but just...don't take "eyelids" for granted. (Interestingly, I think octopuses do something similar to what manatees do, sticking their eyes out or drawing them back in to protect them.)

    Also, manatees should be called "sea elephants", not "sea cows". They are Afrotheria, related to elephants and hyraxes but not to any of the other clades of plant-eating mammals (such as the Ungulates or rabbits) or aquatic mammals (such as the Pinnipeds or Cetaceans)—all of those three (yes, three, Cetaceans are Ungulates, Pinnipeds are Carnivora, rabbits are rabbits) are Laurasian.
  • That fact, incidentally, that Afrotheria are a whole different lineage from Laurasian animals, is fascinating. Actually apparently there are three, aside from Afrotheria—Euarchontoglires or Supraprimates, which as the second name suggests includes primates, but is also rodents, lagomorphs, tree-shrews, and colugos; Xenarthra ("weird joints") which is only the tree-sloths, armadillos, and anteaters; and the Laurasiatheria, which is shrews, hedgehogs, bats, ungulates, and carnivorans (and pangolins, which are not related to Afrotherian aardvarks or Xenarthran anteaters). It's interesting to me in part because we might be looking at a division in the mammals that's as fundamental as the Saurischia-Ornithschia split in the dinosaurs—assuming that that split is fundamental. (Given that "Ornithschia" means "bird-hipped", and yet birds are Saurischian, "lizard-hipped", dinosaurs, "ornithschia" and "saurischia" might well be polyphyletic groupings. And since we mostly only work these things out with DNA testing, we'll never know now.)

    It's also interesting just in general, that, for instance, elephants are so weird partly because our last common ancestor with them was some time in the Cretaceous—because Africa was an island, like modern Australia, from the breakup of (West) Gondwanaland until the Neogene, i.e. from 110 million years ago to about 23 million. Every hoofed mammal in Africa—which includes not only antelopes, giraffes, wild asses, zebras, and camels, but also hippos and rhinos—only dates to the Neogene. Same, I think, for the African carnivorans and primates—Africa before the Neogene had elephants (albeit the first ones were the size of large housecats), but no antelope, lions (and the felidae somewhat predate the Neogene), or monkeys. On the flipside, the rest of the world didn't have mammoths or mastodons until the Neogene, either—specifically the late Miocene or early Pliocene, probably a bit after 6 million years ago. I bring this up here because it's cool, but also because you should probably block out the cladistics of your aliens and their ecosystem.
  • All those "six sexed species" science fiction stories fall afoul of another principle, besides the "how does that work for every other species in their biosphere?" and "wouldn't that be more efficiently handled by something like a termite-colony's caste system?" ones that I raised.

    Do you remember Kes in Star Trek: Voyager? And how her species gives birth only once in their lives...to one offspring? Which means (your novella's handwave isn't canon, Trekkies) that every generation of her species is half the size of the one before it. A six-sexed species fails basic math just as hard. There is a reason that a "replacement" birthrate, for humans, under optimal conditions, is "slightly over two children per reproductive unit". On average, you're gonna get roughly half male and half female; the "slightly over" is wiggle-room for accidents. So having one kid of each sex, with the occasional extras-per-litter, get to reproductive age, means you have enough breeding pairs to keep the numbers up.

    If your breeding-system requires six individuals, then you require six children per reproductive unit. Every family has to have six children survive to breeding age, plus a bit of change to account for unforeseen deaths, just to keep the numbers steady. That means that, right out of the gate, as an intrinsic part of reproduction as such, every single species on your planet finds surviving, as a species, three times as hard as life on Earth.
  • I've recently inclined to the position (I haven't mentioned them much in the books, and never in any detail) that the non-"mammal" fliers on the zled homeworld (Lhãsai) are something like Sharovipteryx, except able to flap their hindleg-wings. Maybe the wing-membranes are more like bat-wings, with membrane stretched between fingers? Or toes, rather. And they could knuckle-walk on their hindlegs when not flying—which can give you some speed, watch the dragons in Skyrim do it sometime. Only one genus on Earth ever went with Sharovipteryx's strategy, but that means it can be done. (That's also one more genus—which is to say an infinity—more than ever had a six-sex reproductive system.)
  • In Korea, they put a type of hagfish (it's like a lamprey) into a bucket, and then tap the bucket with a stick, agitating the fish. Hagfish secrete mucous slime when they're frightened, I'm not sure if it makes them harder to find or slipperier or what. Well, the Koreans agitate the hagfish until it's filled the whole bucket it's in with slime...then they fish the slime out and cook it like egg-white. Mm-boy.

    While no earthly consideration could persuade me to try any dish containing hagfish slime, it is an example of the unsuspected possibilities in an ecosystem. And "what your aliens eat" is an important world-building concern.

    Here's a less disgusting example. Have you ever actually seen an agave? Or more to the point, touched one? The term "agave nectar" probably makes you think of something like an aloe (apparently some crazy people use "American aloe" to refer to the centuryplant, a type of agave they don't make pulque from), but no, agaves are tough, woody plants, probably less "succulent" than prickly-pear or even saguaro; the edges of each leaf are hard and shriveled and stringy, since the edges form the spikes. It's the core of the plant, once the leaves are chopped off, that you get the "nectar" (really sap) from. If someone pointed to an agave just growing there, and told you that you could make liquor from it, you'd think he was nuts.
  • You know Protista, the taxonomic kingdom? Well, no, you don't, because apparently, that kingdom doesn't exist. Apparently now the term means "a polyphyletic catch-all term for any eukaryote that's not a plant, animal, or fungus". It's considered doubtful whether the, what, three? kinds of algae, are all the same thing, let alone whether any algae are the same as dinoflagellates, euglenoids, amoebae, apicomplexa, or trypanosomatids (that last one causes African sleeping-sickness, which is in the top ten most horrifying diseases on that continent—and consider some of its competition).

    And then, a whole bunch of what we thought were bacteria are actually "Archaea", which are the weirdest little suckers you will ever see. Not only do they do things like live in volcanic vents (and your belly-button), but they have weird cell-membranes and some of them "eat" not only things like sugars but also things as bizarre as ammonia, metal ions, and gaseous hydrogen. Some of them photosynthesize, some of them fix nitrogen; apparently none do both (which is one of their differences from bacteria, cyanobacteria being one of the main nitrogen-fixers and taking their name from their blue-green chlorophyll).

    Much as I call Lhãsai's small, be-exoskeletoned creepy-crawlies "bugs", I imagine that the term for their microscopic life would be "germs" (maybe "microbes"). They probably have multiple kinds (probably an organelle/organelle-less division, like what separates eukaryotes from prokaryotes), but since the last common ancestor of their life with ours was the gas the Milky Way formed from, none of our technical terms are appropriate. And no, Cargo Cultists, "bug" isn't a technical term.
  • It occurs to me, I need to add an explanation to something. I've mentioned that zledo taboo scavenging, and thus "scaveng·er/ing" is a cussword in their language (although, arguably, "scavenging at graves" is actually just the cannibalism taboo, not a double—you'll see why in a second). The thing I need to clarify—justifying this point's inclusion here—is, "What's scavenging?", for a species where most members don't kill their own food, but buy food killed by others? Its base meaning is "eating meat you find", of course, but it's obviously not scavenging if you "find" it in your fridge, purchased from a hunter.

    The answer is, "scavenging (as a taboo) is eating something killed by an animal other than man". Or otherwise eating meat you find lying around—they could probably eat an animal they road-killed, but not roadkill scraped off the road. It's somewhat similar to the Jewish concept of "treif" (literally "ripped", as by wild animals—like the Mothers of Invention album), although they apply that word to all non-kosher food (which may or may not imply that people who eat it are animals; it's probably just a convenient shorthand whose potentially impolite implications were not noticed). Navajos and most other Native Americans actually have the same taboo, probably because you can catch some fascinating diseases eating things coyotes have been chawing on.

    Thus, "scavenging at graves" is a zled cussword that's only concerned with the cannibalism taboo, since the issue is eating people, not how you got the opportunity to eat them. They still call it "scavenging", though, because its base meaning ("eating found meat") would usually apply, and it also has a dysphemistic sound. ("Scavenge at the graves of the people you murdered just so you could commit necrophilia", a zled "cluster F-bomb" a character employed in a scene I wrote recently, just works better than "eat the corpses of the people etc.")
  • Sauropods had really weird forefeet. They weren't that much like elephants' hands; for one thing, they don't appear to have had a pad like an elephant. There wouldn't be room. The metacarpals were bundled together into a more-or-less circular column (sauropods had horseshoe-shaped footprints), and generally, the only digit you could actually see (and the only one with a nail) would be the thumb—and that was only visible by its nail. The Titanosaurs didn't even have that—nor any phalanges, as far as we can tell they walked directly on their metacarpals (it's not that weird, chimps and gorillas walk on their metacarpals, albeit by folding their phalanges out of the way).

    The sauropod hindfoot seems to have been more normal, although, despite seemingly having five digits, they only seem to have had three nails, which might mean two of them weren't visible outside the flesh. Also? They walked plantigrade in back, like bears, rather than semi-digitigrade like elephants. That's apparently a fairly new idea, the plantigrade part, but apparently it makes the angles of their necks and tails much more natural (and the new angles, apparently, showed them to have massive neck-muscles). Another thing we're recently discovering about sauropods is they had spikes, some of them long and scary, on their backs and necks (and on the whips of diplodocid tails); rather than being all smooth like in Land Before Time they're actually more like iguanas.
  • It occurs to me that, the Lhãsai flier that's in their "reptile" class, might have α-helix keratins instead of β-sheet ones, i.e. switch the "mammal" and "reptile" associations for their biosphere. That would mean they probably have a skin more like a dolphin or pig than a lizard. I'm also thinking maybe they wouldn't be hairless? Maybe their covering will actually be chitinous chaetae—I know, that tends to imply an invertebrate on earth, but one, lots of fish apparently have chitin, and two, aliens.

    I think I've mentioned that the Lhãsai fliers that are in the same class as zledo have heads like sea-lions? Or maybe like otters or beavers—they're aerodynamic, and those are streamlined for water. I think I'll have them be polyphyletic instead of having a common ancestor, as beavers and otters' last common ancestor is the Boreoeutheria. Not sure how the transition from aerodynamic fur, stuck together like waterproofed fur, to full-on flight-quills occurs; probably it doesn't look quite like the transition from contour to flight feathers, but is definitely similar.