2015/07/31

Blast It

I should've realized that you can't necessarily fit all the explosive inside the grenade. 30 grams of ONC has a volume of 14,563.11 cubic millimeters, whereas the "based on shotgun slug" grenade-design I was using only has a volume of 5,282.41 cubic millimeters—the HEDP round would need to be 2.76 times the volume of the slug. The 20.71 grams of ONC for the air-burst one, meanwhile, has a volume of 10,053.4 cubic millimeters, a volume 1.9 times that of the slug.

All is not lost; a polymer-cased grenade is presumably much less dense than a slug. (I find, incidentally, that the slug in question, given its mass and volume, has roughly the density of thulium, 9.33 g/cm3. It's also the density of the molybdenum-alloy "mandrels" used for piercing stainless steel tubes, so, maybe they're made of that, for improved armor-piercing characteristics?) If we wanted to make the HEDP round work the same, it just has to be 62.83 millimeters long, or about as long as a modern 3" shotgun shell (remember, shotgun shells' actual length is about half an inch shorter than their listed length); the air-burst round has to be 43.25 millimeters long, or about as long as a 2.25" shell.

One thing this probably means is that, while they can load tubular magazines with any combination of shot, slugs, and grenades they feel like, they have to load box magazines with all the same thing. (Actually if the 1.75" Aguila "minishell" is any indication, they may have to load their tube-magazines with all one thing too, or else have some mechanism to vary the "size" of the motion in the feed mechanism. Apparently the minishells have feeding problems in many guns.)

Les armes à feu spéculatives 3

Thoughts on SFional guns.
  • Recently had occasion to design my setting's .50 BMG equivalent. .50 BMG is actually exactly 13 millimeters, I don't know where that "12.7×99mm NATO" business comes from. The bullets are typically a full 60 millimeters long. Now, to move a 49-gram bullet at 860 m/s requires 14.515 grams of nitrocellulose propellant, so it'd take 6.096 grams of octanitrocubane. 6.096 grams of ONC (density 2.06 g/cm3) has a volume of 2959.369 cubic millimeters.

    Going with the base-area of the .50 BMG, which has a case-diameter of 20.4 millimeters, resulted in a somewhat gawky final product (the propellant "casing" went less than halfway up the bullet). So instead we're gonna go with the shoulder diameter, 18.1 millimeters. Now we just say that the cylindrical volume of a cylinder of that base-area, height undefined, minus the volume of the bullet, equals the volume of the propellant. Then we add the volume of the bullet and propellant, divide by the case area, and get a height for the "casing" (actually the propellant) of 42.45 millimeters. The "casing" sticks out 2.55 millimeters around the bullet (and out from behind it), and goes 39.9 millimeters up the side.

    Hence, I guess, my Peacekeepers' sniper-round is "13×43". With an overall length of 62.55 millimeters, and a total cartridge-weight of 55.1 grams, it's a lot lighter than a round of .50 BMG, which weighs 116.8 grams. That means that your sniper can carry a lot more ammo—over twice as much. Currently, .50 BMG snipers usually carry 50-100 rounds, which weighs 5.84-11.68 kilos; 100 rounds of the caseless only weighs 5.51 kilos.
  • Apparently, I was wrong, octanitrocubane would not smell like camphor. It's in the same family of explosives as RDX and HMX; the former is what's in C4. Commercial C4 has "odorizing", "taggant" additives put in to make bombs made of the stuff harder to hide (I don't think the military bothers)—the main "taggant" in the US is apparently very noticeable to dogs, I don't know how noticeable humans find it. But apparently, on its own, it smells "bituminous", i.e. tarry. Personally I like that smell, like fresh asphalt, but I'm apparently in a minority on that one.

    Also, I must be more careful about specifying it's denatured octanitrocubane. ONC, see, is a high explosive; firearm propellants are low explosives—they deflagrate (burn) rather than detonating (kablooie). But, when Heckler and Koch were making the G11's caseless ammo, they (in order to solve "cooking off" issues) used a propellant consisting mostly of RDX, denatured so it would burn slowly enough to propel ammunition—and not explode in the user's hand. (The reason they went with RDX is it's harder to ignite than nitrocellulose is, hence it solved the "cooking off" problem caused by no longer having the ejection of spent casings for a heat-sink.)
  • Recalculating, I find I can, in fact, have my 12-gauge round be caseless. Went with twenty pellets of #3 buckshot, the same as was used in the M576 buckshot-grenade for the old M79 grenade launcher—which isn't really a grenade, it's literally a shotgun shell you shoot from a grenade launcher. But I decided to make the pellets out of the same tungsten alloy as those found in the QBS-09; taking their diameter of 5.3 millimeters and their mass of 1.4 grams, we get a density of 17.96 g/cm3, which makes #3 buckshot (diameter 6.4 millimeters) weigh 2.465 grams—twenty of them mass 49.3038 grams. I'll come back to that.

    Decided to make the propellant straight nitrocellulose, not denatured ONC, for this one: we want the propellant to take up room. The loading tables for a 49-gram load say it takes 2.0088 grams of powder; that, in nitrocellulose (density 1.40 g/cm3) has a volume of 1434.857 cubic millimeters. Now, the closest you can pack spheres still results in wasted space—the maximum efficiency of packing equal spheres is 74.048%. Twenty pellets of #3 buck has a volume of 2745.166 cubic millimeters; in effect, though, it has a volume of 3707.279 cubic millimeters, wasting 962.113 cubic millimeters. We just have to fill that in, though, with our propellant. The remaining 472.744 cubic millimeters? We divide that up among the twenty pellets, solve the resulting volume for its radius, and come up with a coating .17 millimeters thick. Interestingly, #3 buckshot with that coating exactly comes to the edge of a 20-millimeter diameter circle when you pack it hexagonally, as if this arrangement were fore-ordained.

    You stack your twenty pellets in one layer of seven, one layer of three, one layer of seven, one layer of three. I checked, it fits. This arrangement results in a round 24.29 millimeters long, and, again, 20 millimeters in diameter; the remaining volume around the pellets and propellant is presumably filled up by some kind of flammable filler—"liquid wadding"?—to make up the rest of the cylinder. (I envision it being a clear, resinous-looking substance, I'm not sure why except that it'd look awesome.)
  • Now, it turns out I miscalculated before, on the number of rounds a shotgun can hold; shotgun-shell lengths are apparently the length of the casing before being crimped down (or after firing), and are about half an inch longer than the actual length of the round. So 2.75" shells are really 2.25 inches long; a QBS-09's magazine is 28.575 centimeters long, the Benelli M4 and Remington 870's magazines are 40.005 centimeters, and the Mossberg 590's magazine is 45.72 centimeters. That means the QBS-09 can hold eleven rounds (nearly twelve—its 24th-century equivalent probably the full dozen) of our caseless 12-gauge round, the Benelli and Remington can hold sixteen, and the Mossberg can hold eighteen (nearly nineteen—the full nineteen, again assuming a generous future).
  • A shotgun slug with a weight of 49 grams isn't all that unusual, though that's kinda a big one (1.75 ounce). But it requires the same amount of nitrocellulose the buckshot does; with this one, we can go with ONC. I find a typical 12-gauge slug is about 17.65 millimeters in diameter and 21.59 millimeters long. That requires (2.0088/2.38=)843.696 milligrams of ONC, which has a volume of 409.561 cubic millimeters. Treating the slug as a cylinder, we find that the denatured-ONC propellant "casing" sticks out from it 1.175 millimeters, and goes 16.94 millimeters up the side of the slug. That brings its total length to 22.765 millimeters, meaning it pretty much fills out shotgun magazines the same way its buckshot counterpart does (you could carry one extra in a Benelli, Remington, or Mossberg).

    Presumably the shotgun grenades would have the same mass as the slug, and the same amount of propellant. There's basically no easily available information on the 20 mm kind, but I find that an "air burst" 40 mm grenade contains 32 grams of OCTOL (air-burst seems to be the main thing the OICW would've been used for—same seems to go for the less-experimental, or at least less canceled, Daewoo K11 and Chinese ZH-05). Now, ONC (not denatured this time) is six-elevenths more effective than OCTOL, so to get the same explosive yield requires only 20.71 grams; the rest is the casing and fuze. The armor-piercing type of 40 millimeter grenade requires 45 grams of Composition A; ONC is 48.75% more efficient than Composition A, meaning it'd take a full 30 grams to make an AP grenade (presumably they can miniaturize the fuze and make an ultra-light casing, it's the 24th freaking century).
  • Do you remember my coil vulcans? They use the "gatling" mechanism to reduce wear on the coils. Well, it occurred to me, the likely ammunition for that gun, whether vehicle-mounted or carried by powered-armor troopers, is something like the Raufoss Mk. 211 High Explosive Incendiary Armor Piercing round, which uses a steel core and a tiny amount of RDX to accomplish, in a .50 BMG round, effects you usually need 20 mm to achieve. Of course, being a coil-gun round, some of it's going to be different—it'd probably have at least a small amount of exposed iron, for instance (maybe a "driving band" like on artillery shells?).

    Average troops equipped with lifting exosuits could use it with a tripod, maybe, though I don't know of anyone who's used the GAU-19 (chambered in .50 BMG) that way—and the Soviet Yak-B machinegun is only used on the Hind. You would need powered-armor troopers to use the thing without a tripod; the recoil of the GAU-19 is 2.2 kilonewtons at 1,300 rounds per minute, but goes down to 1.7 at 1,000 rds/min and up to 2.8 at 2,000. It takes about 2.7 kilonewtons to knock over a 113-kilo man (a basketball player, specifically, in what's basically a horse-stance); therefore, it takes only 1.7 kilonewtons to knock over a 70-kilo man in the same posture (not that you stand like that while shooting a machinegun). Presumably for handheld, or even mere tripod applications, you'd keep the rate of fire at 1,000 rds/min.

    A thousand Raufoss-equivalent rounds would weigh 43 kilos; each link of a disintegrating belt weighs about 2 grams, a thousand of which is another 2 kilos, bringing the total to an even 45. The GAU-19/B weighs 48 kilos, so you really want that power-lifting exosuit (which may also be necessary to using the thing by hand; I wouldn't be surprised if the reason nobody uses .50 BMG gatling guns now is the sher difficulty of pointing the thing. (By going with titanium instead of steel, the links could weigh as little as 1.1 kilos; and if we use polymer like the LSAT—which you may have to, with caseless—1,000 links weighs only 500 grams.)
  • One thing I realized, since my setting's "assault rifle" is chambered in something that approximates .30-06: they don't need much special equipment to be a "designated marksman". So, in my setting, there is no DMR; they just attach a bipod and scope to the standard assault rifle via its accessory-rail.

    Since it's a bullpup AK-type assault rifle, I guess it looks like the Polish Jantar carbine (prototype/demonstrator). Or, even more, like the Kalashnikov Concern AS-1 and AS-2, of which there seems to be, more or less, one image on the whole internet. (Your guess is as good as mine why they're green.)

    While I'm at it, the bullpup ARs my USMC uses, are basically like this, the K&M Arms modernized Bushmaster.
  • The main underbarrel grenade-launcher used in my setting is also a shotgun, like a cross between the M26 Modular Accessory Shotgun System and the M576 buckshot grenade in reverse.

    It occurred to me that my Peacekeepers would classify all their shotguns as grenade-launchers—because it's no longer the least bit remarkable that they can be used for 20 millimeter grenades. It's not that uncommon to classify things oddly, in militaries; several Russian shotguns are designated as carbines, and not all of them have rifled barrels like the KS-23. Or how about the US's pathological aversion to the words "light tank"?

    I'm not sure how prevalent 40 millimeter grenades are, for my Peacekeepers, though zledo use their equivalent here and there. I suppose the humans probably prefer the 20 millimeter ones for the high end of "small arms", and use the 40 millimeter grenades for their equivalent of the Mk. 19 grenade machinegun (and its successors).

2015/07/22

Sierra Foxtrot 6

SF thoughts.
  • Turns out I was apparently overestimating the collective mass of the human species. Our average mass, including children, is 50 kilograms. Since a hefty proportion of our population is not full-grown, we actually mass more like 350 billion kilos. The Earth, for comparison, masses 6 septillion kilos. (Or, humanity as a whole masses 350 teragrams, but the Earth masses 6 yottagrams...meaning the Earth is 17,142,857,100 times the mass of all of humanity.)

    Remember that next time a Watermelon Green waxes overwrought about this "tiny" planet. Also, the mass of the Earth's atmosphere is 5 quintillion kilos, i.e. 5 zettagrams. That's relevant not only to discussions of climate, but also (and in my estimation more importantly) to discussions of whether terraforming by any society that we'd recognize as ours (and still recognize as such when it finishes) is good science fiction or rank nonsense.
  • There are two shows on Syfy right now that involve space-travel—I know, I'm scared too. One, Killjoys, is fair-to-middlin'; the other, Dark Matter, is (so far) genuinely good.

    Killjoys' problem is its bad worldbuilding, basically. You wouldn't be mining in person in that kind of setting, certainly not for yttrium—yttrium being one of those metals it's a lot easier to get from asteroids, when you have the option, and putting boots on an asteroid is a waste of money. Likewise you wouldn't be harvesting crops with migrant farm-workers, certainly not outdoors (indoor farming is a lot more efficient, both in terms of land-use and in terms of crop yield—you grow the crops under magenta light).

    We haven't seen as much of Dark Matter's worldbuilding, but that's a good thing: they reveal their setting gradually, and the characters' amnesia justifies their being as in-the-dark as we are. Dark Matter also has a much more likable cast of characters and a more livable setting, since, unlike Killjoys, it's not composed entirely of bad dystopia clichés (piled up without regard for whether they make a lick of sense).
  • I wonder if people are going to think that the fact zledo call the space-fold drive "the light-speed bridge" is a Transformers reference, i.e. to the space-bridges. It's not; I had been only very casually a fan of Transformers when I decided that's what they call it (if "those are kinda cool but I can name exactly three of them" counts as even "very casual" fandom).

    No, actually, zledo calling their FTL "light-speed bridge" is a reference to Hilaire Belloc's essay "On Bridges". Specifically, to this part:
    A bridge is a violation of the will of nature and a challenge. "You desired me not to cross," says man to the River God, "but I will." And he does so: not easily. The god had never objected to him that he should swim and wet himself. Nay, when he was swimming the god could drown him at will, but to bridge the stream, nay, to insult it, to leap over it, that was man all over; in a way he knows ... that all that he dreads is his inferior, for only that which he reveres and loves can properly claim his allegiance. Nor does he in the long run pay that allegiance save to holiness, or in a lesser way to valour and to worth.
    In the same way, the zledo regard their FTL drives as "a violation of the will of nature and a challenge", except that they don't have the concept of "nature" in our sense of "happens on its own". But they do regard the FTL tech as a defiance of mere brute creation, something proper to man.
  • Another show that's out this season is Humans, or rather HUM∀NS (which I prefer to pronounce "Hum-for-all-n̩s"). It's kinda...not good. Actually it's terrible. The thing is a bunch of paint-by-numbers Transhumanist clichés, and none of the characters except William Hurt's (because he's never bad no matter what he's in) is worth a damn. Neither of the parents of the main family seems to mind, or even think it notable, that their kids will not so much as get up to answer a phone; later, when the dad leaves the room so his wife can talk to their daughter, the wife leaves too!

    And, seriously, you can't just skim the Wikipedia article on Transhumanism, throw the appropriate buzzwords into your dialogue, and call it a day. Give us an actually original take on the idea of AI, or don't waste the money on a show about it. Of course, this show doesn't actually waste any money on anything, because it is set, in all regards, in the contemporary UK. It's apparently set in 2046, i.e. 31 years in the future, but all their material culture looks just like that now. Because nothing will change in 31 years—everything we have now looks exactly as it did in 1984, right?

    Also, come on, 2046? You think we'll have androids that can pass for humans in good light by then, or anyone actually wanting to use them for anything except a novelty? We might just maybe kinda sorta have some specialized applications of robots in some very few things; we might make much more use of automation in countries where the demographic collapse has been particularly harsh. But nobody who understands the problems with the TinmanTypist trope should expect much of that to involve androids, and nobody who plays many video games should be particularly sanguine about the reliability of any androids we do use. (I'll leave to one side the absurdity of anyone making self-aware androids—ever, let alone in 31 years.)
  • Supposedly, a tiger can hear a human heartbeat from twenty to thirty meters away. Now, if tigers' ears are as much better than human ears as cats' ears are—five times as good—then that's probably not right, given you can't hear a heartbeat from four to six meters away, but there is more to the story than brute acuity. Cats, and tigers, being solitary predators, are much better at picking certain sounds out from ambient noise.

    Another thing they can do is pinpoint a sound to within five degrees, which comes to eight centimeters a meter off—and 2.19 meters, at the aforementioned twenty-five meters (on average) that they can hear your heartbeat from. So, basically, though a tiger can't find you by scent (there's a saying somewhere in Southeast Asia, I forget where specifically, "If the tiger had to find food by his nose, he would starve"), it can find you very quickly by its ears.
  • One of the anime out this season, Classroom Crisis, about a voc-tech high school owned by a rocket company (on Mars) that's getting restructured by its parent corporation, was all right for the first two episodes, but then it filled me with rage. You ever hear of the "leftist sucker-punch", where something ideological sneaks into a work that's mostly irrelevant to politics? (The sucker-punch is also found in right-wingers—*cough*Terry Goodkind*cough*—but it was named by a conservative, I think John Nolte.)

    Well this show had an "idiot sucker punch". The accountant working for the corporate-shark type who's restructuring them gives their factory to the space-car division, then tells them they have to use the garage where their type of rocket was invented—which has been a museum for the last several decades—instead. And they sit there and take it!

    No, sorry. What would really happen would be the rocket-engineer/teacher would turn to her and say, "I'm sorry, what level math did your degree require again? Do you understand that none of this equipment has been used in decades, and to re-attach the utilities, and then run diagnostics, repairs, and replacements on the equipment—to say nothing of the lost time becoming familiar with decades-outdated equipment and the software it runs on—will cost as much as our old facility? To say nothing of whether you can even use this garbage to make contemporary rockets."

    It's basically this Dilbert strip. The reason I call it an "idiot sucker punch" is, it's obviously driven by consideration of "what will advance the plot", rather than "what makes sense" or "what is not an expression of open contempt for our audience". That's just as bad of work as that produced by inserting ideology, although it's probably less morally reprehensible.
  • The thing (well, one of the things) people forget when they generalize from chimps and bonobos to humans, is that our last common ancestor with that genus (Pan) lived 5 million years ago.

    5 million years ago, there weren't any mammoths or mastodons. Yet. I.e., entire lineages of elephant came into being and went extinct in the time separating Homo from Pan.
  • A 12-gauge cartridge is 20 millimeters in diameter. A 12-gauge slug, of course, is 18.53 millimeters in diameter—the diameter of a sphere of pure lead that will mass 1/12 of a pound—but, for purposes of military SF, the diameter of the cartridge is more useful (not least since it's a nice round number). So, the upshot? In my setting, 12-gauge is called "20 millimeter". I think the shotgun shells won't be caseless, but made of a material that is entirely burned up and expelled when the round is fired, something like the paper cartridges you'd see in the early 19th century.

    It's apparently quite common to use 2.75-inch-long rounds in military shotguns; that seems to be, for instance, what the QBS-09 semi-automatic shotgun uses, as do the US's military-issue Benelli M4s, Mossberg 590A1s, and Remingtom 870s. I don't know that you'd need quite that much room, given you need 42% as much octanitrocubane propellant to get the same performance you get from nitrocellulose propellant, but the biggest factor in how much space a 12-gauge round requires is the nine pellets of 00 buckshot. Packing the pellets as closely as possible—in triangles, not seven-sphere hexagons—apparently means a height of 22.5 millimeters, or just under one inch. The higher-powered loads of 12-gauge 00-buck seem to use about 2.46 grams of (nitrocellulose) powder, which is 1.03 grams of ONC; given ONC's optimal density of 2.06 grams per cubic centimeter, you're looking at exactly 500 cubic millimeters, which, at a diameter of 20 millimeters, is a disc 1.59 millimeters thick. If the pellets simply sit on top of the ONC "powder", you wind up with a shot-shell with a minimum length of 24.09 millimeters. Assume another, say, 14 millimeters, of wad, to bring the whole thing to an inch and a half long—38.1 millimeters.

    The QBS-09 has a magazine with a capacity of five rounds of 2.75-inch; the Benelli M4 and Remington 870 go up to seven rounds, while the Mossberg 590 can do eight. That is to say, the QBS-09 has an effective magazine capacity of 34.925 centimeters, the Benelli M4 and Remington 870 both have an effective capacity of 48.895 centimeters, and the Mossberg 590 has a capacity of 55.88 cm. If the rounds for those shotguns were only 3.81 centimeters long, then the QBS-09 could hold nine rounds, the Benelli and Remington could hold twelve, and the Mossberg could hold fourteen.

2015/06/14

De scripturae romanicos physicales

Thoughts upon subjects directly or indirectly relevant to the writing of science fiction.
  • People seem to think DNA records information. But it doesn't. DNA is no more an information-storage medium than a player-piano or Jacquard loom is a computer—because that's what DNA is, a very complicated, chemical version of the rolls in a player-piano or the cards in a Jacquard loom (and no, none of those is actually "information" either). DNA and RNA do not "tell" anything how to make a protein; particular regions of them actually make the proteins—"template", the term used in polypeptide synthesis, is a manufacturing term, not a computer term. There is no information involved.

    There's a reason this misconception exists; it's a constant refrain in the grim dirge of human history. Humor theory came into existence in an era when hydraulics was cutting-edge tech. Descartes's "ghost in the machine" was in the heyday of clockwork, when half the cities in Europe were competing over who could build the most elaborate Glockenspiel. And this idea that DNA is information comes when the cutting edge of technology is computers. (If we enter an age dominated by biotech, I expect we'll see a Renaissance of hylozoism.)
  • I have elsewhere mentioned that the Bechdel test is worthless. But I thought it would be fun to illustrate why. Queen's Blade passes it. Triage X passes it. The anime of Blade and Soul passes it. Sekirei even passes it, and it's a harem/super girlfriend show.

    See, the Bechdel test is based upon a proxy-measure, so, like all proxy-measures, it's extremely unreliable, and can yield disastrously or at least ludicrously false positives. (That aspect of proxy-measures is why all "litmus tests" are suspect, religious tests for public office as much as stupid checklists for writers.)
  • I must correct myself: the time-dilation planet in Interstellar is not that way due to the planet's gravity. It's that way due to the gravity of the black hole it's orbiting. (Its time-dilation is "one second inside is seven years outside", which is to say a factor of 220,903,200.)

    Not that the origin of the time-dilation changes much; that level of time dilation means they can probably literally stick a hand out and touch the event horizon. The tidal effects at that distance mean the planet would probably have crumbled up and fallen into the black hole, leaving nothing behind but a plume of hard radiation. Long before that, the gamma-ray Hawking radiation as the black hole dissolved would've fried the planet into a lifeless cinder. Which is also what would happen to any ship approaching it. Also, that close to the black hole? The escape velocity is so close to lightspeed, it pretty much is lightspeed for all intents and purposes.

    Christopher Nolan should be known henceforth as Christopher J. Nolan—to commemorate the fact he obviously belongs to the Bert I. Gordon/Robert L. Lippert/Edward D. Wood, Jr. school of sci-fi filmmaking. (It's kinda like "Mark David Chapman" or "Lee Harvey Oswald" or "James Earl Ray". Actually, in "quality cinema" terms, it's exactly like that.)
  • Zledo, given their size and the fact they're in many respects more like a bird than a mammal, have a significant advantage in space-travel—and dogfights. See, apparently what determines your odds of going into G-LOC ("g-force loss-of-consciousness") is your blood-pressure: the higher the better. And if zledo are more like birds than like mammals, well, their "mean arterial pressure", given they're the same mass as an ostrich, is 145.5 mm Hg (ostriches in one study had a MAP of 165-220, while in another they ranged from 60-137; the average is 145.5).

    Humans' MAP ranges from 70 mm Hg to 110 mm Hg, so the average is 90. (I would use a more typical "systolic over diastolic" number, but that's not the format I get ostrich blood-pressures in, so I'm using the same stat for humans to get an apples-to-apples comparison.) Also notice that all but the lowest value for the ostriches is higher than the highest healthy one for humans; the 60 mm Hg ostrich (which is the minimum safe MAP for a human) was probably in some kind of trouble. (Not unlikely given those ostriches were sedated—you go take the blood-pressure of a conscious 300-pound omnivorous dinosaur, if you got a problem with that.)

    Huh, logically, that means women would have higher g-force tolerance...but only after menopause. (At which point I would imagine their risk of bone trouble more than makes up the difference, given that ejector-seats will literally make you shorter.)
  • Has anyone else noticed that all of the female villains in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. are that way because of something men did to them? Whedon got precisely what he deserved from Twitter feminists (not because there was anything wrong with Black Widow in Age of Ultron, but because when you ally with cannibals, eventually you wind up on the menu). While he might be a good little feminist ideologue, he actually doesn't seem to like women all that much.

    Now, in reality, of course, all villains should be motivated by something sympathetic; everyone in the real world is, with precious few exceptions. No, that historical figure you just thought of isn't an exception; that minor psychopath who makes his private life a living hell, that that other one of you thought of, might be one. But also, the fact is that women are much more likely to do things on behalf of other people than for abstract principles; study after study shows a marked difference in how the sexes conceptualize things like "duty". So it's quite likely that a female villain is likely to be acting from obligation to someone else, to protect those she loves or because of the ideals and goals of some other villain. Lady Macbeth was not something Shakespeare just made up.

    But that is not the same thing as every female villain only being that way because of abuse by men. Hell, most of Whedon's heroines are the same way; River, everyone in Dollhouse, Buffy herself when Whedon feels like denouncing his own characters and setting for things he made them do. (You know, like how the problems with Alien 3 and Resurrection are the fault of the director not spinning the straw of Whedon's script into gold.) You could chalk this up to Whedon being a by-the-book academic Marxist feminist theorist—the class-war arises from the oppressor (even in revolt the proles are dependent, in case you needed another reason to hate Marxism). But it's interesting that even a lot of feminists are starting to realize the problem, although (like Western Marxists confronted with the gulags) they claim it's because Whedon was never really a feminist, rather than because feminist ideology actually has a very low opinion of women.
  • Why do people in science fiction always age weirdly quickly? Not, like, in an Oisin/Urashima Tarô "what do you mean time-dilation isn't fairyland" kind of way; I mean how they die or are ancient at ages that are relatively young now. The lady running the station that gets Compiled in Halo 4 is supposed to be 51—but she looks a bit old to be early 50s by modern standards, let alone 26th-century ones. Or how Ripley's daughter died of old age, in Aliens? Yeah, well apparently in 2179, "old age" means 67, because Alien was set in 2122 and the kid was 11. People don't usually die of old age at 67 now!

    It's hard to find realistic projections of future lifespan, what with all the transhuman cultist-cranks running around, but it is quite reasonable to project lifespans over 100 years by the middle of this century, and probably a few decades longer for the 22nd-24th. On average, I mean; there would be people living for decades longer, just like we don't particularly raise our eyebrows at the occasional 90-year-old or centenarian.

    In order to determine what is or is not "old" for your setting, in terms of how characters are viewed by other characters of their society, what you do is, you take your projected future lifespan, and you compare it to modern ones. Say, e.g., that a woman in your future can expect to live to 114, where now she can expect to live to 81. Well, the average age of menopause now is 51, for your future setting, you divide 51 by 81, and multiply it by 114—menopausal women in your setting are just under 72, so, quite literally, their 50 is our 35. (Not sure where you put menarche: it happens earlier now than in most previous eras, between our better nutrition and the hormones in our water from contraceptives, among other things.)
  • The aforementioned transhuman cultists and their silly ideas about immortality (it's just barely conceivable that humans might someday live to 300, but immortality...not so much, or rather, snerk, not so much), are just one of many ways that people reveal themselves truly unable to cope with the scale involved in this cosmos. You see it also with environmentalists (many of whom are admittedly transhumanists). They really do think humanity can actually do something to "nature". In reality, even something like the Chicxulub impact is far beyond our capabilities—our entire planet's nuclear arsenal has a yield of 7,000 megatons, i.e. 7 gigatons. But Chicxulub was 100 teratons, i.e. 100,000 gigatons—i.e. 14,285 and 5/7 times our entire nuclear arsenal. And as you may have noticed, life on Earth survived Chicxulub (you could strip the planet's surface of life by nuking all of it, perhaps, but the relatively few detonations involved even in a major Mutually Assured Destruction nuclear exchange would leave the vast majority of the planet essentially untouched).

    The simple fact is that, physically speaking, human beings are, individually, 70 kilos of volatile chemicals in an equilibrious arrangement, and collectively, we don't even mass half a trillion kilos (490 billion is 10 billion short). Yes, we can screw things up, causing drastic problems for local ecosystems wherever we are. But life on Earth as a whole? It barely knows we're there. Hell, if you don't happen to be looking at the night side of the planet, when all our electric lights are lit up, you wouldn't be able to tell there was a technological species on this planet. Did you think it was odd that the very same people who embrace transhumanism's promise of giving humans godlike power should also espouse the environmentalist ideology's belief that humans are evil? Nonsense. Both ideologies are two sides of the same coin: total overestimation of humanity's capabilities. Or as House put it, "Technical term is narcissism. You can't believe everything is your fault unless you also believe you're all powerful."

    Speaking of human beings and their flawed estimations, how many environmentalists do you think understand that our conception of "normal" for this planet's climate is completely off-base? All human civilization—indeed, most of the genus Homo—has existed in an interglacial of the Quaternary Ice Age, which started 2.6 million years ago. But for most of the planet's life-history, there haven't been any ice-caps; the Antarctic one formed in the early Oligocene (33-odd million years ago), while the estimates for the Arctic one range between 700,000 years ago (the middle Pleistocene), and 4 million (the early Pliocene). Antarctica was in much the same place it is now, in the Cretaceous, but there was no ice-cap. (The other Ice Ages were the Huronian, which lasted from 2.4-2.1 billion years ago, right after the Great Oxygenation Event; the Cryogenian, AKA "Snowball Earth," which lasted from 850-635 million years ago and included the greatest glaciations in Earth's history; the Andean-Saharan which lasted from 450 to 420 million years ago; and the Karoo Ice Age, which lasted from 360 to 260 million years ago.)
  • People need to knock off the comparisons between freefall and diving. This was occasioned by a discussion of whether any astronauts had ever had sex in space, and someone said "Well, if divers do it..."

    But divers might as well be home in bed, compared to freefall. First off, if you're floating in water, you are by definition not falling. Does nearly everyone when they first get into the water, diving, throw up? Because that's what people do when they first get into freefall. Your circulatory system is also messed up, because the whole thing is used to having to push against a gravity well; you get blood pooling in your upper extremities. Possibly because of something with your circulation, or because of something else being out of whack, you also lose a lot of immune function.

    (Incidentally, it's extraordinarily unlikely that anyone has ever had sex in space, or ever will until we develop some kind of artificial gravity; certainly there is no evidence for it, other than one proved hoax and one, possibly two, totally unevidenced and very doubtful rumors about particular astronauts. Aside from the fact that for the first few weeks, people spend a lot of time "just having thrown up", which is not exactly sexy...you have the, uh, circulatory issues. Blood-flow is kinda important to sex, you know? And finally, there's basically no privacy up there. Maybe enough for changing clothes, but for sex? Very doubtful.)

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 AIs like that without it being intentional; 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 kg) over the dry weight (6,668 kg), it's over the dry weight plus the payload (2,812 kg, which brings the total to 9,480 kg)—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 18,960 and 4/9 kg. 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.