A Musing & the FAQ

On the evergreen question of what about us, Earth-now, the Imperials might find worthy of a little respect, a recent rewatching of Apollo 13 reminds me to mention that our space program, especially of the Apollo era, definitely qualifies.

Bear in mind, for one thing, that for various reasons involving their homeworld’s quirky perversions of physics, that their moon program, Project Silverfall, didn’t reach fruition until they were already a mature information-age society, and so Moondancer and her sister ships, along with Oculus Station and so forth, were all equipped with fancy, modern integrated network systems, and other technology of similar advancement, with the controls looking rather more like a Dragon V2 touchscreen-and-voice UI than anything else. (And, of course, it was a roomy Orion ship, not a capsule that barely fits its crew.)

So, y’know, it wasn’t quite “In a cave! With a box of scraps!” from their perspective, but getting to the moon with slipsticks and core memory, in a vehicle smaller than Moondancer‘s bridge — that’s remarkably impressive by any standards. And, of course, there’s simply no way you can’t respect any of the sodality of folks willing to strap their asses to a cannoboom and ride it into glory.

(On the other hand, the way the program was abruptly terminated after having served its political purpose of being a stick to beat the Soviets with pretty much confirms all of the negative stereotypes in the book, or at least the ones indexed under short-sightedness, Obstructive Naysaying, democracy, cratic government in general, and so forth.

Never mind all the people saying “What’s the point in going to space?”, then and now. I mean, it’s not like the Empire has never had any mental cripples, but by and large, they don’t give them column-inches or seats in the Senate.)

On another note, I am contemplating adding a FAQ page for the benefit of new visitors to the site. As such, I welcome nominations for Qs that are FA – which doesn’t mean a free for all in re new questions, I stipulate; nominate from questions already answered or posts which answer unspoken questions, please!


Questions: Economy and Habitats

Got some more questions! Jamie asks:

It strikes me as odd that at the technological level the Eldrae work at that they appear to be working under an ideal capitalist system in an era of post scarcity technology. How is wealth determined? What is the currency based on? What kinda of inequality is there if any?

Well, the thing to bear in mind about “post-scarcity” societies is that virtually all of them are actually only “post-material-scarcity” (or “nearly-post-material scarcity”, which is how I’d describe the Core Economic Zone polities and regions in the Eldraeverse.) Some things tend to remain scarce – ideas (especially if we assume that inventors, designers, authors, and so forth like to be paid for their work for reasons over and above what the money can buy them, which as an author, I’m pretty sure of), personal services, availability (only so many people can attend X event), etc., etc.

This is true even if we step out of my universe and examine the ur-post-scarcity example, Iain Banks’s Culture, in which a plot driver running through many of the books is the competition to get into Contact, or Special Circumstances, which by no means takes even all the qualified people who want to get in. In Look to Windward, we also see the case of a live concert timed to match the light from a particular supernova – and thus obviously limited to only that one particular place and time and audience – cause such perceived scarcity that even the people who are very smug about “money is a symptom of poverty” immediately reinvent scarcity economics and trading favors in the quest for tickets.

So that’s why they still need an economic system. (Well, that, and nearly-post-material-scarcity only means that mining, generating, and manufacturing is super-cheap, not free, because it still takes energy and thought to do – thermodynamics, it is a bugger. People may only be paying the equivalent of $20/month, easily covered by the Citizen’s Dividend, for the right to manufacture a giant pile of consumer goods every day, but that trivial cost is still there on the back-end.)

As for capitalism – well, now, I find that something of an unfortunately loaded term in *here*’s politics, so I try not to use it to describe things *there*. Their system is both propertarian – inasmuch as it esteems private property, and makes great use of property rights in various areas – and agorist – making use of free markets (which, given their views on the essential nature of consent, is close to the only ethically permitted option).

When I say “loaded”, of course, one of the things I mean is that people assume that capitalism includes only for-profit corporations (which the Empire’s system doesn’t – as the link above says, CEZ economies have an extensive agalmic component, and usually support healthy gift economies, open source communities, alternative internal economic arrangements (co-operatives, ecodemocracies, etc., etc.), the bounty economy, the street performer protocol (like Kickstarter), etc., with wage-based employment (which is almost nonexistent outside indenture – see here, here, and here). It is, if you will, also a free market in free market types.

…and it stays that way, essentially, ethical issues aside for the moment, because the Empire got to become a wealthy nearly-post-material-scarcity civilization by being organized that way, and the wise man does not kick away the ladder that got him where he is today. Especially if he’s still standing on it.

As for how the currency’s based, there’s a good explanation of that here (look down in the article; the first part covers why it’s Very Much Not Gold). It’s essentially fiat, but a peculiar kind of independent fiat designed to match the currency base accurately to the production capacity of the economy (because inflation is a form of robbing creditors to pay debtors, and deflation is a form of robbing debtors to pay creditors, and that is just not on, no sir).

As far as inequality is concerned, I can do no better than point you at the explanation here: Trope-a-Day: No Poverty.

The other thing that seems odd is that they are very planet focused and mentions of space habitats of all shapes and sizes seems rare. How common are Eldrae habitable worlds? What makes planets more useful than more energy and resource efficient habitats? How have they varied the basic habitat designs?

Um, not sure where you’re getting that from. I seem to recall more than a few mentions of one habitat or another, and canonically about three-fifths of the Imperial population are spacers, only two-fifths living on planets. (By no means all of which are habitable, if by that you mean “shirt-sleeve habitable”; most of the populated planets in the Worlds are partially-terraformed Mars-type worlds, which are actually much easier to deal with than existing garden worlds, habitability-wise.) There’s a certain bias towards garden worlds in the Thirteen Colonies, back in the Imperial Core, because of the preferences of the old subluminal colonization days, but in general, it’s not so; and the list of “habitables” tends to include worlds like Sialhain (Venus-like, colonized in aerostats), and Galine (Titan-like), and so forth.

As for why planets – why not planets? People started out being used to them. Sometimes people like seeing landscapes that someone doesn’t have the architectural plans for, or smelling a few trillion tonnes of aeon-old biomass on the wind. (Or maybe they just like wind, who knows?) Or, y’know, because planets have oceans, and while there are aquatic habitats,  you’re not getting the cetacean uplifts out of the Big Puddles any time soon. It’s not a decision anyone’s making out of questions of efficiency, being nearly-post-material-scarcity, and all; it’s a decision people make because they feel like it, and why not?

As a side note: garden worlds are also extremely useful and valuable because they have ecologies, which are very information-dense. And even in the most crassly commercial sense, an ecology is a giant library-cum-research-program of new biotechnological and nanotechnological tricks to draw from. It’s just good business.

(Outside the Empire and other transsophont cultures, of course, many people live primarily on planets because they’re too Luddite or biochauvinist to modify themselves to live comfortably long-term in microgravity. But, hey, someone’s got to be the meek who inherit the Earth, right?)

Habitat-wise: well, I’m going to keep the details under my hat a bit until we see them in fic, but teaser-wise, what I will say is that while there are some O’Neill cylinders and the like, the majority of them could be classified as modular structures or asteroid beehives, operating in microgravity – and even the cylinders tend to operate under low spin gravity. After all, why live on a faux planet when there are plenty of real planets around? Spacers prefer to live spacer-style among spacer-style architecture, by and large.

FAQ Followup

And we have a follow-up FAQ. Mark Atwood asks:

Follow up question: how compatible are various worlds and polities nanofacs and slurrys? Polities that are colonies of existing polities will likely use compatible slurries and facs, but independent invention and/or long-enough separation in time will lead incompatible tags, inline data packages, and physical designs of nano-scale cages and gripping points. I can see things getting Interesting on worlds that have to deal and trade across polities with different nano, and interesting issues when trade fleets and military fleets with incompatible nano have to interoperate.

The answer there would be: for the most part, if you think of it as Internet software, you won’t go far wrong.

Most of the Worlds runs nanofacturing protocols that are cross-compatible and function according to the Imperial Nanofacturing Standard V.Whatever, IOSS1 somenumber through IOSS someothernumber, for the same reason as most of the extranet runs over IIP2; namely, it may be an Imperial standard, but at least it’s an open standard, and more to the point, it’s an open standard with plenty of legitimate places to plug in extensions and submit them for inclusion.

Even more to the point than that, it’s one with a lot of weight behind its adoption, because:

First, starcorporation-wise, just as Bright Shadow is pretty clear to its customers that its backbone runs over IIP and if you want interoperability, you can run IIP or built your own network gateway protocol, companies like Llyn Standard Manufacturing and Traders in Ideation make it pretty clear that they publish recipes that conform to the IOSS, and if you want to have your own protocol-format for recipes, then translating their recipes to work with your supply chain isn’t their problem.

And second, there is a huge database of free-to-use recipes out there, and by far the vast majority of them are INS-formatted, for reasons including longevity of publishing, a thriving open-development culture, and patent/copyright law that dumps expired, no-longer-manufactured stuff straight into the public knowledge pool. That that’s out there is a huge incentive for most ‘fac manufacturers to build machines that are compatible with it.

This even encourages worlds that invented the technology independently to work towards compatibility, obviously, something that’s made easier on the ego by the people who come around shortly after First Contact looking to grab any particularly good ideas they had independently to put in the next revision of the standard. 🙂

That being said, this is just like TCP/IP stacks inasmuch as when it comes to the core functionality, everything is swell and interoperable, but life may get interesting when one wanders off into more obscure corners, especially when people have interpreted things creatively or cut a few corners here or there. The further you go from basic mechanosynthetic applications, especially where gray-market, low-end, or from Those Companies, You Know The Ones ‘facs are concerned, the more likely it is that you’re going to end up having to contact your friendly local ‘fac-hacker to patch around whatever it is the manufacturer screwed up. Indeed, if you’re on some dark ‘hab out at the ass-end of the Shadow Systems, you’re probably going to need to get that guy out to make anything compile at all on your home-made sort-of-compliant lash-up system.

This is the level of problem that tends to hit most of those trade fleets, and so forth.

Most of the serious incompatibility issues are entirely deliberate – people who specifically don’t want to have access to those things, for a variety of reasons, be it straightforward economic protectionism (which makes even less sense than usual when you have cornucopias, but no-one said those governments were smart), keeping out evil Impie cultural imperialism as reflected in their Stuff, and/or fighting the War on Hedonic Pharmaceuticals Or Whatever Other Damn Thing It Is This Month by trying to prevent their citizens from printing out designer drugs, mass-driver pistols, or whatever other locally proscribed widgets they can download freely off the extranet.

(…which in turn the Agalmic Praxis Foundation, the Free Fabrication Fraternity, et. al., cheerfully subvert by writing recipes to get incompatible ‘facs to print out the needed parts to assemble compatible ‘facs, and so it goes on…)

1. IOSS = Imperial Open Source Standard. Which is exactly what it says on the tin.

2. IIP = Imperial Interweave Protocol. Looks something like IPv6 on steroids, with added relativistics and light-lag extensions, and using 512-bit addressing3 to allow for conveniently addressing individual elements of nanite swarms, etc. (With currently reserved option to extend to 1024-bit addressing just in case future requirements include addressing across multiple universes.)

3. For anyone wondering, this gives you up to 10154 addresses, which may seem excessive in light of there only being maybe 1080 protons in the universe. Apart from letting you feel comfortable using sparse allocation, I suspect the main reason for this is that at some point in IIP development, the engineers said the equivalent of “Look, guys, we have powerful processors these days and the routers can handle it. Let’s make sure we never have to go through another renumbering ever again.”

It’s FAQing Time!

Yes, folks, it’s that time again for the first time when I answer y’all’s background questions!

We have one question this month. James Sterrett asks:

What precursor elements do autofacs require for fabrication?  The same elements in the same proportions as the finished product (plus waste etc), or can they synthesize required elements?

Well, now, that’s an interesting question with quite a complicated answer, inasmuch as autofacs are rather complicated things in themselves..

Let me first suggest that this might be a good time to re-read Things That Make Things, since it covers a lot of the terminology I’m about to be throwing about.

So let’s start at the small end, with one of the most common working parts of an autofac, and which is also the core component of a cornucopia, including the ubiquitous desktop nanoforge, the portable nanolathe, and the specialized fabbers.

These, themselves, can’t synthesize elements, or indeed produce any other part of their feedstock – which is to say, you can’t just throw trash into them and have them rearrange it into what you want (you need specialized disassemblers for that, that are hardened to the job. Throw trash into a cornucopia, you have a good chance of wrecking the delicate internal components). They’re just glorified 3D printers. They’re absolutely dependent on a supply of feedstock, which is called nanoslurry.

(One exception to this is that you can also get what is called a nanobrick, which is basically dehydrated nanoslurry and formed together with a mass of simple assemblers. You use it together with a programming nanolathe for field construction, after mixing it with a suitable solvent, usually water, to form a nanopaste. But that’s not what we’re talking about here.)

Nanoslurry itself is a complex suspension of materials useful in nanoconstruction, designed to make it as easy and efficient as possible for nanofacs to pick out the bits they need. It comes in a variety of different kinds and grades, most of which are intended for one specialized industrial application or another. Standard-grade, which is what is shipped out as a public utility down municipal nanopipe systems, comes in two forms, informally referred to as “gray” and “green”.

The nanopipe you have plugged into your domestic cornucopia, for that matter, is actually a four-pipe system. The first supplies gray nanoslurry – which is water, long-chain alcohols, sulphur and nitrogen compounds, a suspension of iron and copper oxides, heavy metals, silicates, acetats, nanograins of industrial plastics, ceramics, and alloys, and prefabricated molecular components, or to put it another way, everything you might need to perform “common mechanosynthetic applications”. The second supplies green nanoslurry, which is specialized towards organic synthesis applications – what this means, of course, varies from world to world. And the third is the special-order pipe, which gets aliquots of specialized feedstock shot down it upon request, because while you may occasionally need, say, 2.1 g of technetium, it’s something specialized enough that there’s no point in including it in the regular feedstock.

(The fourth is the return pipe, that pumps what’s left after the nanofac has picked out what it needs back to the nanosource for recycling.)

And what the nanofacs need is, well, exactly what elements are in the finished product. (Plus a certain degree of in-process waste that ends up squirted down the outgoing pipe back to the nanosource.)

So, so far, we’ve just pushed the problem back to the nanosource; after all, nanoslurry doesn’t exist in nature, so it has to be manufactured. Which is what nanosources do: out of a variety of sources. Air mining, for worlds with atmospheres that have useful components. The bactries of chemical companies, refining volatile asteroid-liquor into useful chemicals with bacterial aid. Giant metal ingots shipped from smelters, which are reduced to slurry components. Reclaimed and purified chemicals from recycling plants and biocleaning cascades. In short, from the ends of all the conventional supply chains. Larger autofacs, like the Hive, will usually have their own nanosource(s) to produce all the specialized feedstocks that they want, especially since autofacs use a bunch of those raw materials elsewhere in their non-nanotech manufacturing processes.

So now we’ve just pushed the question back another level, haven’t we, to “can the people the nanosources use as suppliers synthesize elements?”

To which the answer is, finally: yes, but they usually don’t.

Nucleosynthesis is possible. There’s an entire engineering discipline, alchemics, that specializes in this sort of thing. But it’s neither cheap nor convenient, inasmuch as it still involves banging nucleons together and trying to get the wee buggers to stick, a process that tends to involve particle accelerators and nucleonic furnaces and isotopic separators and mucking about at absurdly high energy densities and low efficiencies. That said, it is now regular non-experimental engineering, and a large enough autofac might well include the equipment.

…but economically, it is almost always cheaper to dig the stuff up and have it shipped to you for nanosource processing than try to manufacture it on site from other elements. Nature’s production process may be slow and uncomfortably explosive for anyone within a couple of hundred light-years, but, damn, does it have economies of scale.

This effect is only amplified, of course, by the fact that alchemics equipment is also what you use to produce gluonic string,  muon metals, and various other kinds of exotic matter that genuinely don’t occur in nature anywhere. Now that’s what you call comparative advantage!

Crass Commercialism

As it’s nearing the end of the month, that time at which Patreon charges people’s cards, today I deem an excellent day to thank my Patreon patrons for their contributions to my writing time and funds. Thank you, gentlesophs, most kindly; your generosity is most appreciated.

Of course, while I’m doing that, it’s also a good time for me to suggest to everyone else that if you enjoyed it, tip the writer! Apart from ensuring a continuing flow of writings around here and letting you feel good about yourself, it also comes with perks, including but not limited to complimentary copies of e-book collections (one of which is upcoming), and the ability to ask background questions to be answered in the monthly FAQ!

(Speaking of which, eligible folks, if you haven’t got your question(s) in yet for January, now would be a good time!)


Additionally, based on expressions of interest I’ve received, I’m going to open up the floor for questions from my Patreon patrons – one per $ per month – as suggested here, and now added to the Patreon rewards list.

So! Let’s start while the iron is hot. It’s January, and that means y’all who have pledged $1/mo. or more have a week to get your January questions in, if you have ’em, and the answers will be FAQed come February 1.

(And if you have questions and aren’t currently a patron, why not become one?)