2014/07/18

Blood and Treasure II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014/06/24

Confirmanda de Veritate II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014/06/04

Comentario 5

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014/05/23

Les armes a feu spéculatives 2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014/05/17

We Call It Voight-Kampff for Short

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014/05/12

Distortion Levels So Low as to Make a Brave Man Weep

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

2014/05/06

Lives, Fortunes, Sacred Honor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014/04/27

Mélange II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014/04/15

Space Core II

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2014/04/11

The Spin Stops Here

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

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

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