Tuesday, September 15, 2015

There and Back Again - In SPAAAAAAACCCEEE!

When I heard that Star Trek: The Next Generation was going off the air, I anticipated the void in my life.  It wasn't that ST:TNG was the best thing ever, but I craved sci-fi adventure, exploration of the galaxy, etc. with decent production values.  The "spin-off", Deep Space Nine, had always left me flat - it felt claustrophobic, and seemed too often about interpersonal relationships.  The other TV offerings of the day were, IMHO, sub-par.  So I started thinking about what sort of series I'd like to see.  It would have to be one of starfaring exploration featuring sophisticated aliens, worlds that don't support human life, conflicts big and small, good science, and both drama and light comedy.  I thought it would be cool if a bunch of near-future humans (and therefore protagonists we can understand) stumbled onto an alien craft somewhere in Neptune's orbit, found their way inside, and WHAM!  The ship takes off, and by the end of the pilot episode our reluctant explorers realize they are on the other side of the galaxy (or universe!), and the show is about them getting home to Earth.  Well, fellow nerds will giggle at that - it was apparently a pretty cool idea, so much so that the folks at Trek decided to do much the same with Voyager.  Another example of my zeitgeist problem.

The first thing such a story needs is a reliable way to move the ship faster than light.  Even at light speed it takes way too long to traverse interstellar space to make a compelling adventure tale.  Sure, the characters may not experience those years of travel (thanks to relativistic time dilation), but in the meantime the Earth would march into the future without them - there'd be little point in the characters returning to Earth if it took thousands of years.  I'm a hard sci-fi nut, and other than the appearance of aliens I wanted the science in "my show" to be generally "correct", addressing or at least being informed by the real problems and the real theories on solving them.  Clarke's famous quote on advanced science essentially being magic does give us a lot of leeway to simply say "it works" and not get into the mechanism, but where's the fun in that?  Heck, the details on how the ship's engine works could even drive some of the story - how might it go awry and how to fix it, how to navigate properly, is it a banal or coveted technology, etc.

The warp drive of Star Trek is actually a thing, a real idea called the Alcubierre drive.  It gets around the speed of light (or SOL) limit by changing the space around the ship so that inside the bubble (the "warp field") the ship is barely moving at all, but the bubble itself, which has no mass, can be made to move many times the speed of light.  The engine basically moves the surrounding space instead of the ship, contracting the space ahead and expanding it behind - the ship just happens to be at the center.  While Star Trek did make up a lot of magical science (I'm looking at you, Heisenberg Compensators!), this much they pretty much nailed.  Whether or not we can ever get such a thing to work is beside the point - the theoretical model is solid.  My hat's off to the franchise for that.  Of course, that means that using this principle myself, whatever I called it, would be derivative.

Which (finally) brings me to the point of this post.  How is the ship of my story going to get around?  I needed some new answers.  Not for me such magical tech as the Star Wars hyperdrive, Farscape's "starburst" (whatever the hell that was), or Bablyon 5's generic hyperspace "jump gates".  I wanted something new, odd, or at least explained in the show.  I came up with a few - maybe they'll be of use to someone:

  • The Null-Mass Generator: The physical reason there's an SOL at all is that an object gets more massive the faster it goes, and as it gets to the speed of light that mass approaches infinite, at which point it would take an infinite amount of energy to move faster - so you're out of luck.  The NMG suppresses the gain in mass.  The "magic" here is in how that works exactly.  But the result is that even standard chemical rockets could push such a ship past light speed, over time.  (Of course, this fictional ship would have much better sub-light engines than standard chemical rockets, maybe something like NASA's new EM drive.)  Such a ship runs up against another relativity problem regarding inertial frame of reference and time dilation, so the "solution" is that the ship "blinks" out of our universe into - you guessed it, "hyperspace" (or a different name, like "overspace").  It also occurred to me that this "uberspace" could be a tachyon universe, and perhaps it has worlds or stars of its own here and there, so our heroes could even have an adventure, friend, or antagonist in this place.  [DISCLAIMER: since coming up with this idea, I've learned that objects don't really gain mass, but inertial energy/momentum that merely acts like mass for the purpose of further acceleration.  Does this change the principle of the NMG?  Shrug.  Not my problem!  Worse yet, I learned even more recently that such "inertialess drives" have been around since 1928 - Edward Smith's The Skylark of Space!  DAMMIT!]

  • The Segmenter, or "Seam Ripper", or simply "Ripper": The Rip Drive is a variant on the Alcubierre principal.  Rather than bending space-time, the Ripper "wounds" the space around the ship.  Such a wound heals almost instantly, in micro-units of Planck time.  The "pressure" from sealing the wound pushes the space around the ship, carrying it at tremendous speed.  [DISCLAIMER: I later ran across a similar thing, around 2010 when I read Stephen Baxter's Vacuum Diagrams.  DAMMIT 2, Electric Boogadamn!]

  • The Quantum Agnosia Inducer, or "Psych" Drive: I've long wondered whether everything in the universe is really just a static clump of "stuff" with "properties".  For instance, an electron is just a piece of "stuff" with a set of properties, while a proton is also a piece of "stuff" with a different set.  Those properties include charge, mass, spin, and all that, but also positional relationships, a history archive perhaps, or even something weirder like "likes and dislikes".  If you smash a proton you seem to produce a bunch of smaller stuff, but what you're really doing is just splitting off properties - whether you're revealing new component particles with their own identities or adding new properties to account for the schism, I dunno.  (Yeah, I'm vague on it, too.  I think of it like a mask - every bit of "stuff" is identical under the mask.  Anyway...)  "Moving" a particle through the apparent universe is a brute force means of constantly changing its properties to account for position, motion, and relationship to other particles.  Well, what if instead of that, you could just monkey with the properties directly to set them as they would be if they had already arrived?  Bam!  You've convinced the particle it's somewhere else - and because everything's just properties, it is!  Hence the name "psych drive" - instantaneous motion ignoring space-time issues altogether by fooling the ship (or hypnotizing it - "hypno-drive"?).  Such an engine depends not on fuel or thrust or other baryonic physics, but on raw computational processing power.  The size of the ship determines the size and complexity of the required computer.  [DISCLAIMER: Apparently Greg Bear liked the application of this idea, too - it's central to his 1993 novel Moving Mars, which I first encountered in 2013.  DAMMIT 3, The Final Damnflict!]

You may have guessed by now that I'm not a physicist.  All too true.  A little knowledge + the Internet + an imagination = very questionable science.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Fake/Vegetarian/Vegan "Meats" -
There have got to be better names

My, I've been remiss in posting.  And super busy with other nonsense of the "reality bites" variety.  Few new ideas have arisen that weren't immediately shot down as "Oh, did you see [X], which is exactly what you were just talking about?"  Sigh.

I'm not a Capitalist in my heart, but I suspect a career in advertising may have suited me.  If you enjoyed the old Wendy's and Little Caesar's commercials, or the adorably bizarre Quiznos spots, or thought that Ferryman's was possibly the greatest commercial jingle ever conceived, you and I are of like mind and should start our own firm.

Of course, advertising is the last step in the process.  The first is product development - I've got plenty of (mostly ridiculous and terrible) ideas for such, which will find their ways here.  The step between development and advertising is, I think, branding.  In today's episode, we look at branding notions for fake lunch meat.

Can you think of a more boring name than "tofurkey"?  Me, neither.  If you're in the process of branding your own fake meat product - and who isn't - may I recommend the following?

  • Pepperphoney: great for your vegan pizza;
  • Fakon: mmmmmmmm...
  • Sham: even God approves of this kosher alternative;
  • Boloney: it kinda writes itself;
  • Malurkey: so bad, it's good;

I've not come up with any for beef or pork - that's your job.  Bon apetit!

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

"Atlas Hugged: An Objectivist Recovery Manual"

This darkly light-hearted and over-the-top romp would be an indictment of Randian Objectivism, an exploration of the catastrophic results were it taken at face value and adopted universally - couched as fiction, of course. Moreover, it would advocate more inclusive, tolerant, reasonable, community-centric Humanist values as the only cure for what ails us, and as the best means to assure a productive, peaceful, and prosperous existence for every individual, our species, and whatever planets we inhabit.

The cover would show Atlas holding up the Earth, not on his back but on his shoulders, like a parent lifting a child so it can watch a parade. The Earth is heart-shaped, with cartoonish eyes and mouth. Atlas is looking up at it, beaming, as Earth looks down with a wink and a smile.

Like Rand's "magnum poopus" (coined?), Atlas Hugged would be structured in three parts, spoofing her incorporation of Aristotelian laws of logic in the section titles. (Ironically, Aristotle's rules, commendable as they were for two millennia, have been reassessed as severely limited, far from bullet-proof, and inadequate to most real-world applications - as Objectivism has been.) The novel's sections would be:

  • "Contradiction", in which the dystopian (and cacotopian) Objectivist America is put on display. The United States has descended into an authoritarian plutarchy, where a vanishingly small percentage of Objectivists - primarily Capitalists or those working with them - have attained personal fulfillment and now direct and restrict opportunities for anyone whose ideals and goals don't align perfectly with their own, including dissenting Objectivists with less property and influence. The lack of social services, criminal code, and market regulation result in considerable poverty, malnutrition, disease, theft, violence, and an increasingly under-educated work force. Culture and sophistication decline as resources are diverted into the hands of the corporate giants and emphasis placed on continued growth of business and production, thereby producing fewer thinkers, teachers, artists, and craftspeople; those it does produce who don't share the visions of the powerful elite are unable to find a voice or job. Brutal and bloody corporate competition are eroding the national infrastructure and economy, causing even more suffering;
  • "Why Not Both?", wherein the disenfranchised and trodden go on strike, refusing to support corporate interests above their own, and every citizen claims him- or herself an Objectivist. Basic services halt and production ceases as individuals abandon traditional responsibilities in favor of personal pursuits, most of which are impractical and unsustainable because no viable markets for their ideas materialize from the chaos. Food and energy supplies dwindle. Infrastructure and personal property are seized and cannibalized for impractical or purely personal purposes, like building a dream home or sculpture. Large-scale projects go unrealized as necessary laborers follow their own agendas. Competition arises for diminishing resources. Murder, rape, and domestic violence skyrocket. Children are cast out by parents who find caring for them an inconvenience. Starvation and fear force mass migrations and emigrations. States and then individual communities secede only to find their situation worsened. Finally, unspecified aggressive foreign interests begin to annex regions no longer able to protect or care for themselves;
  • "A Likes B In 'That' Way", in which allies of the former democratic U.S. rescue us from our Objectivist folly, and from the foreign "bad guys" who hoped to exploit our weakness. An interim government is established to transition us to a revised form of our former institution, one modeled after the blended Capitalist/Socialist systems seen in much of Europe. Basic needs, including food, health care, and education, are ensured for all, regardless of socioeconomic class or ability to contribute to the system. The definition and control of "utilities" is expanded to include all goods and services considered essential to a modern-day working community or nation, and are formally socialized - power, communications, mass transit, Internet, etc. Popular Democracy is reestablished under a reformed political process that controls and limits campaign funding, eliminates "pork" from legislative action, and sets term limits for all elected offices. A straight-forward and shelter-free tax code is created and rigorously enforced, designed to ensure that individual and corporate tax burdens are directly proportional to their material gains from the system. Reasonable regulations are drawn and enforced on civic, corporate, and industrial endeavors to minimize corruption, crime, waste, and hazards to personal and ecologic safety. Corporations and businesses are not considered people, and receive no civil rights as entities. Criminal code is federalized, the death penalty eliminated, and rehabilitation emphasized. Equal rights for all citizens are mandated. Tolerance and acceptance are fostered along with individual self-respect and community interest, as is respect for disagreement and dissent that don't undermine community welfare and security, nor infringe on others' individual rights. Incentives and material protections are offered for individuals and businesses contributing positively to the welfare and condition of their communitoes and to the nation as a whole, whether that help is in the form of charitable work, innovation that improves the standard of living for everyone, or in cultural enterprise. (And the list goes on, because there are reforms needed across every aspect of our current set of systems.) And when we're back on our feet our allies withdraw, welcoming us into an international partnership that finds its highest calling in the pooling of resources for mutual gain, in finding reasonable, respectful solutions to conflict and differences, and to the lifting of every person and every community to the highest possible levels of self-esteem, mutual respect, happiness, and prosperity.

Because, in the words of Brazil's Harry Tuttle, "Listen, kid, we're all in it together." The best chance we have as individuals and as a species is not in taking what we want from others to suit ourselves, but in reaping the rewards of what a whole community brings to the table. Become invested in your fellow humans, encourage others to do the same. You don't need religion to appreciate the value in that; it's not only logical, it's instinctive, as we are social, loving, empathetic creatures as much as we are selfish. (In fact, just eschew religion, as it's responsible for more divisiveness, hatred, intolerance, small-mindedness, and violence than any other human endeavor.) If you're going to proselytize an ideology, choose one that doesn't leave you alone, cold, and hungry in the winter when your house burns down, and no one invites you in or offers a crust of bread because your Objectivist neighbors recognize that it's "your problem" - or because your non-Objectivist neighbors see you accurately for the elitist, indulgent, short-sighted, intellectually dishonest, hypocritical asshole Rand would so like you to become.

As an alternative cautionary tale, Atlas Victorious: friendly aliens comes to Earth and help us implement the model Objectivist system globally in but a single year. And with the inevitable catastrophic results that virtually eliminate human civilization. See, the aliens aren't really Objectivists themselves, but do this to subjugate other species and prevent future threats to their own interstellar dominion.

I had crafted a much longer, saltier rant on Objectivism (a "Randt" [coined!], if you will...). But the "idiology" has already been discredited so thoroughly by philosophers, sociologists, historians, politicians, and even economists, that there's nothing I can say that hasn't been said elsewhere more profoundly, succinctly, and with significant expertise and citation. The fact that Objectivism is so often adopted by Whackadoodle Libertarians and fiscal conservatives is far and away a more telling indictment than anything I can produce. Objectivism is shit, Objectivists are shitty, and the worst thing I can wish on them is that they get what they themselves wish for - because in the every-man-for-himself Objectivist Shangri-La (where women are submissive and don't warrant or receive the benefits of Objectivism unless they enjoy being raped), those who don't starve will get eaten alive.

Besides, the best exploration of the naiveté and pointlessness of Objectivism may very well be Dr. Seuss's unintentionally germane, The Zax. Of course, this story isn't really about Objectivism - had it been, they would have murdered each other.

Monday, June 1, 2015

"... t ... i ... r ... e ... d ..."
~ A Nebulous Graphic Novel Concept ~

I have only the image of the front cover in my brain...

We see a casually dressed man and woman sitting on a couch. The man is on the left of the frame, legs straight out and leaning back heavily. His right arm is draped over the sofa's arm, and his head leans all the way back, his scruffy face pointing upward but mostly covered by his other arm. The woman is about halfway between the man and the sofa's other arm. She's pitched forward, knees together but feet apart and pointing slightly inward. Her left elbow is on her left knee, and her head hangs down far enough that her left hand rests on the back of it. Her right arm rests on her right knee, but hangs forward and down as if dead weight. The image is dark, heavily shadowed, perhaps black and white, or maybe just very muted colors, almost sepia tones.

The imagined story background is a familiar one: a supernatural (or perhaps alien/virtual) world on the edge of our own. But it is only perceptible when on the cusp of sleep or thoroughly exhausted, and the closer to that cusp the more we can interact with that world, and it us. Our protagonists have learned of (or discovered?) drugs that keep them in that state for prolonged periods, but of course this also limits their capabilities. Perhaps they have even become obsessed with this new world, and addicts to both the euphoria of sleepiness and to the drug that holds them there.

We never see the protagonists' full faces, not in one frame, and we never see their noses or full profiles so there's no way to put the separate images together to know exactly what they look like. The lighting is often very noir, with the eyes or mouth lit while the rest of the face remains in shadow or silhouette.

What have they found? How many others know of it? What are the dangers? What of that other side - what can they do, and what do they want? How much is real, and how much hallucination?

I don't have the answers. But now it's your problem - let me know when it hits shelves and I'll pre-order a copy!

Thursday, May 28, 2015