How to Talk to Rocks

“The typical computer in use in the modern Empire remains the parallel array of binary-encoded Stannic-complete processors that has been in use since the days of the first settled Stannic cogitator architecture. This is the case at all scales, from the smallest picoframe microcontroller to the largest mega, with the principal exception being the rod-logic nanocomputers used to provide computing power to microbots and other tiny devices, for which the distinction between hardware and software becomes fuzzy.

“These processors naturally come in a variety of designs utilizing a number of different internal architectures, microcodes, and instruction sets – even word lengths, although 128-bit words (banquyts) are an industry standard. That being said, while bare-metal programming is still taught to inculcate the fundamentals of the profession, it is rarely practiced today.

“Rather, high-level languages are compiled down to MetaLanguage, or ML. ML serves an an intermediate language whose core set of instructions is implemented, directly or indirectly, on all processors; a number of optional feature subsets (for physical interfaces, quantum computing, cryptography, and so on and so forth) may be implemented by various processors, but are not required. Exotic or experimental processors which wish to make use of ML, the majority, may implement their own private subsets. Code objects, or assemblages of such objects, are either precompiled upon installation or just-in-time compiled to platform-specific instructions for the processors they serve.

“The high-level languages of choice, naturally, are a much wider selection. The long-term leaders, at the time of publication, are:

Polychora: a general-purpose, multi-paradigm programming language designed to support object-, aspect-, concurrency-, channel-, ‘weave-, contract- and actor-oriented programming across shared-memory, mesh-based, and pervasively networked parallel-processing systems.

Descant: More dynamic and less strict than Polychora in its approach, and optimized for just-in-time compilation, Descant is a general-purpose language which, while supporting similar functionality in most areas, is optimized to serve in an extensible, modular, readily-integratable system-scripting role. Where convenient, it shares operators and syntax with Polychora.

Silvar: A dynamic language for data-structure-oriented programming, metaprogramming, and self-modification, supporting full homoiconicity while maintaining interoperability with other ML-based languages.

“Additionally, there are many domain specific languages in use. Common examples of these include Exapar (a language designed for convenient programming of nanoswarms and other massive-parallelism systems), eXchange (for expressing smart contracts), Imprimatura (used for declarative rights management systems), psylisp (an extended dialect of Silvar designed for optimal mind-state encoding and self-improving intelligent systems), and VIML (Virtual Interface Meta Language, used for virtuality design, along with specialized derivatives including IMF, the Interactive Modeling Format, and DObI, the Descriptive Object Interface).”

– Introduction to Computer Programming (Vol. 1.): Speaking To Minerals,
Imperial University Press

Trope-a-Day: Data Pad

Data Pad: The slate, a once ubiquitous accessory before the advent of the fob terminal, the wearable, and the neural lace, and still quite common because it’s useful to pass data around (of course, smart paper does just as well for this, but…). Also, people kind of like working with their hands.

Also note that this is a way to share one or more documents on one person’s device among multiple people having a coffee together, not a stack of one-document-per-device data pads ending up in in-trays, this not being Star Trek:

picard-padds

Seriously, this is the dumbest thing ever committed in television SF. Except possibly the baryon sweep, or the temperatures a couple of hundred degrees below absolute zero, or the cutting of holes in an event horizon, or… well, okay, those were all bad science. This is just total fail of common sense.

Trope-a-Day: Virtual Danger Denial

Virtual Danger Denial: Very strongly averted just about everywhere advanced, because this attitude coupled with ubiquitous computing and mind-machine interfacing, as well as when Everything is Online, is not survival-oriented, shall we say. (Yes, you can catch a fatal STI from cybersex.) In the modern world, you can safely assume that you are completely surrounded by computers which control just about everything going on in your vicinity, and anything that affects them will most definitely affect you.

And don’t even think about what an EMP would mean.

Service Pack

“Back off the toggle reader,” Myrian Vitremarvis bellowed through his bullhorn. “Unclutch the address drive from the operatin’ counter.”

A series of metallic bangs punctuated by less-metallic blasphemies from the floor above accompanied the execution of this order.

“Okay, now get the donkey strapped up. Advance address counter to 12,732. 12,732, you hear?” He turned to belabor the crew behind him. “Now lower away on the bit winch. Get the shackle down to the reader level –”

A clangor cut him off, as the operating-code shaft spun and the great master toggle chain clattered down into the depth of its well.

“Okay, 12,732? Give me the next eight toggles in sequence.”

“Up, up, down, down, up, up, up, down, boss,” a yell came down from the reader balcony, “and the edging lines are right.”

“Clamp it and cut it. Cut it above, remember, we’re losing link 12,731.” He turned again. “Lower away on the bit winch, get us space. First chain!” A gesture with a wrench ushered in a half-dozen junior operators bearing another length of toggle chain on their shoulders. “Give me the leader.”

Myrian scrutinized the pattern of lines etched into the first link of the new chain. “It’s valid. Get it up to the reader walk.” He raised his bullhorn again. “Got it? Weld it. Then run the address counter forward until the loose end’s up at the reader walk. And haul away on the bit winch, get the shackle back at par – then hook that and weld it, too.”

A flurry of acknowledgements came back.

“Good. Now run the chain back seven hundred sixty-eight places, an’ get the reader in position. Rig for a test read-and-compare off the donkey. Seventeen more chains to patch and only a day and a half left in the maintenance window – so snap it up, you code dogs!

Meat Machines

CS Drachensvard
holding position 120,000 miles from uncharted drift
Corfeth (Vanlir Edge) System

The sound of retching broke the silence on the bridge. Midshipman Lochran-ith-Lanth, currently manning the tactical/payload position. He’d already clamped his hand over his mouth by the time I glanced over at him, though, and got his reflexes shut down in only a second more. Good man, well trained.

Not that anyone could be blamed for throwing up, seeing this for the first time. Clavíë at Data Ops had penetrated the station’s network without breathing hard, and the images coming back from the internal sensors were enough to turn anyone’s stomach.

Slavery persists in backwater parts of the Periphery, and even the Expansion Regions, much to our embarrassment. But then, we’re the Imperial Navy, not Éjavóné Herself. We can’t vaporize everyone who deserves it all at once.

And everyone knows the reasons: sophont servants, flesh toys, test subjects, cannon fodder, pet victims, and so forth. This, though – this was a very distinct perversion, characteristic of where high technology met low.

After all, it takes a relatively high – and expensive – technology to weave the topological braids of a hard-state neural net processor, or to program an effective software emulation of all of its subtleties. It takes an advanced biotechnology to grow and educate a cortexture that can perform advanced cognitive tasks. But while it takes a firm grasp of sophotechnology to learn how to repurpose an existing neural network…

…it turns out that any transistor-stringing moron can actually do it.

Take a sophont. Preferably an intelligent one, and young and strong enough to survive the process for a long time. “Simplify” them – by which they mean remove any inconvenient limbs, or hair, or anything else not needed in their new role. Dose them up with catacinin, or some other mind-killer drug, and neural plasticizers, then saw off the top of their brain-case, insert the interface electrodes, and seal the hole with sterile plastic. Hook up the life-support system, and box them up. ‘No user serviceable parts inside.’ A week or so of imprinting, and you have a neural-net processor – worth ten-thousand gPt, maybe twenty-five kgAu in one of these backwaters. It’ll last maybe ten years before the flesh gives out, and it’s an order of magnitude cheaper than less ethically defective hardware, unfortunately.

“Communications from the station, Skipper. They – ah, they protest our unprovoked attack, and wish to offer surrender.”

“One response, Máris: ‘Dármódan xalakhassár hál!’ Mr. Lanth, load the primary with AMSM warhead.”

“Captain?”

“You heard me, Mr. Lanth.” At his shocked look, I continued. “There’s nothing that can be done for the ‘cargo’, son. Everyone over there to rescue’s had their brain pithed with a dull knife. The best we can do for them is make sure the ones who did this don’t do it to anyone else. Now: load primary with AMSM.”

“Aye, sir. I mean – aye-aye, sir.”

I tapped the view-mode switch, and watched as the exterior of the slaver station replaced the pitiful sight on the for’ard viewer.

“Primary loaded and standing by, sir,” he reported.

“Fire.”

Author’s Note: Hey, Y’All, Watch This!

For those wondering about some of the technical background:

The chief obstacles to using “normal” computers in space are heat generation (given the average spacecraft’s limited heat budget – disposing of heat in vacuum is hard), cooling (because in microgravity, convection doesn’t work – there go heat-sinks without a lot of active coolant-movement devices), ability to work in low air pressure and/or vacuum if something goes wrong, and the prevalence of ionizing  and other EM radiation, which tends to muck up delicate electronics.  For a large part of history, this was handled by many of the same compromises we made – reduced transistor density, specially hardened chips and designs, magnetic core memory, and so forth.

(Fun fact: this problem was particularly bad back in the Apollo-era equivalents of Projects Phoenix, Oculus, and Silverfall, because they were using Orion-style nuclear pulse drives.  Which is to say, during atmospheric ascent, a crapload of EMP happening right near the flight computers.  Back then, they were using “electron plumbing” machines, because despite their space program being relatively later in their technological timeline and thus having better ICs available, they still were by no means EMP-immune.  “Electron plumbing” is a technological path we didn’t take – essentially, evolved thermionic valves/vacuum tubes to higher orders of complexity.  Never widely used, because ICs were still a better technology overall, but for this specific use, excellent.)

But in the modern era of spaceflight, they can use standard commercial computers, because those use optronic nanocircs.  Those run cool (no need to wiggle significant electrons about; photons are much easier to handle) inherently, and care much, much less about passing ionizing and other EM radiation.  Also, all but the most cut-down “standard” ML runtimes or hardprocs (a processor that implements the ML runtime directly in hardware) incorporate all the real-time and safety-critical features that you’d need for spaceflight applications, because those features are also used in general automation and robotics and other applications that are pretty close to ubiquitous downside as well.  And so does the standard IIP networking protocol, and so forth, and for much the same reasons.

As for WeaveControl, it’s more formal name is Interweave Command/Control Protocol; for reasons of technological evolution, plus much more prevalent hackerish tendencies in the population, just about every device manufactured – cars, lightbulbs, drink-makers, ovens, coins – comes with an IIP interface and a WeaveControl endpoint, which lets you run all the functions of the device from an external command source.  (It’s become such a ubiquitous open standard that there’s no reason not to spend the couple of micros it takes to install it.)  You really can script just about anything to do anything, or hook it up to interfaces of your choosing on any device you have that can run them.  Things as simple as programming your alarm clock to tell the appropriate devices to make your morning cuppa, lay out suitable clothes according to the weather and the style of the day, cook your breakfast, fetch and program your paper with the morning’s news, order a car to come take you to work, and program its music system with a playlist suitable for your mood are downright commonplace.

But they’re serious about anything/anything compatibility.  You can program your bath from your car, drive your car from your PDA, operate an industrial 3D printer from seat 36B on the sub-ballistic – hell, run your building elevator from your pocket-watch if you can think of any reason why that might be something you’d want to do.

Some of these applications are, ah, less advisable than others!

Out of Order Transmission

…as every child learns, computing as we know it today originated with the invention of the Stannic cogitator.  Stane Vitremarvis-ith-Vidumarvis of Azikhan, working in the family business of manufacturing mechanical calculators and automata cores, was the first to make the conceptual breakthrough that in addition to accepting fixed programming, such automated devices could store and indeed dynamically modify programs in the same manner as they did data.  Thus were the first general-purpose computers built, ushering in the transition between the Low Steam Age and the later High Steam Age with the use of miniature Stannic cogitators to provide the required control mechanisms for the first true steam clanks (pre-electronic robots), and earning a second fortune for House Vitremarvis in the process.

This, however, is the history of networking.  The ability of computers to interconnect and communicate exponentially expands their capacity and usefulness, something which was clear from the earliest days of the field, but nonetheless, the development of networking had to wait until the availability of a suitable transmission medium.

While some short-range experiments were carried out in the early days using chains, shafts, belts, dedicated multi-mass ball-bearing races, and other mechanical interconnects between pairs of Stannic cogitators located close to each other, some with remarkable success, none of these mechanical means proved possible to make function reliably, or indeed at all, across distance.  Communication between distant devices required shipping the data using conventional transportation, in a frozen form – most commonly a stack of punched cards (stiff paper cards in which holes in specific locations represent the information, readable using a pin matrix), or a toggle chain (a standardized length and gauge of chain in which each link contains a two-position mechanical toggle, whose positions read from end to end represent a data string).  Some progress was also made in transmitting the contents of these media using automated heliography (although manual transcription was required at the receiving end; experiments in fully automated heliography were not being carried out until near the end of the High Steam Age).

The first true networks did not appear until the first relay-based computers came into use.  With the harnessing of electricity, it finally became possible for one machine to produce a signal, readily transmissible over long distances, which could automatically be read by a receiving machine.

While first used as dedicated machine-to-machine connections, a team working under Parváné Camriad-ith-Sereda devised what we know today as the forerunner of IIPv1, a set of protocols implemented in these early machines by dedicated hardware, which permitted multiple machines to share a single line and transmit any-to-any, with only the intended recipient receiving any given message; and also to break up messages in such a way that a long message would be transmitted in segments, such that other machine pairs could still partially utilize the communications line.  Later, his team added to this a mechanical interchange such that messages could be forwarded from one line to another by an intermediate hub, allowing messages to be passed over long distances without requiring all the machines in each location to be connected to a single communications line; the first true packet-switched network.

Parváné Camriad-ith-Sereda offered his demonstration to a number of entrepreneurs of the time, some few of which saw the potential in his shared-line system.  These went on to found Empire Telegnosis and Mechanical Messaging (a corporate forerunner of the modern Bright Shadow, ICC), which used Parváné’s shared-line system as the basis of a long-distance communication network to bind together many of the Empire’s major cities, and thus offer a versatile system to interconnect many of the commercial, scientific and governmental computers then in use.

It is a matter of some historical interest, unusual when technological development sequences are compared, that Eliera developed the data network so early in its history; this can be probably be attributed to the also-unusual early advancements in metallurgy and clockwork engineering that permitted the successful invention of the Stannic cogitator.  On most worlds, electronic computers are the first to be successfully constructed, and data networks tend to follow the invention of telegraphy and telephony.

By contrast, telegraphy on Eliéra was the product of various local initiatives (Cestia Lightning Mail, Azikhan Electromessaging, Roquentius & Co. Telescriptorium, et. al.) purchasing simple computers, little more than a cypherwheel and an interface, and having them interconnected by ET&MM for the dedicated purpose of sending and receiving sophont-to-sophont messages at high speed.  Likewise, telephony was a latecomer to the Eliéran scene – reaching many regions after most homes already contained their own “telegraphic terminal” – based on dedicated voice lines using the existing data network as an out-of-band control channel.

IIPv1 itself was a product of…

– IIP Elucidated, Volume I: Perspectives