2016_J(No alternate words.)

“Violet diamond,” said the jeweller, peering at the gemstone through his optronic loupe. “A genuine rarity, if it is. Genuine, that is. Nearly three hundred grains, uncut. High clarity. And – ah, not flawless. One very slight inclusion. Excellent.”

“Ah, I — that’s a good thing?”

“It is for you, because what I do not see with this diamond is a provenance.”

“I’m afraid I don’t follow.”

“No provenance – no authenticated record of everything that’s happened to the stone since it was first dug up – and how can you prove that this is a natural stone? For this to be worth anything above functional price, you have to be able to distinguish it from an artificial stone printed out on a nanofac.”

“That inclusion will help?”

“It might. I can take it back to my lab and profile its edges at the micro-level, then run a spectrometer on the contents. If the edges don’t show any statistical evidence of artificial randomness, and if the contents analyse as something likely to be found in diamond-forming cratons and not nanofac printing chambers, then I can give it a probabilistic certification.”

“And buy it at market price?”

“Not full market. All this will say is that it’s more probable than not that it’s a natural stone. I can’t prove it. A skilful enough forger could duplicate everything I’ll be checking for, so I can only offer you partial payment based on how likely it is to be genuine.” The jeweller looked at the seller, not unsympathetically. “If you’ve found a lode of these somewhere, young man, you should stop digging until you can get a whole authenticated provenance-recording system on site, because if you’re digging right now,.you’re bleeding money with every shovelful.”


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!

Things That Make Things

Since we’ve just passed the Matter Replicator trope, and since it may be relevant to an upcoming FAQ question, I thought I’d throw out some definitions relating to such things that may make things clear. Well, clearer.

nanofac is the basis of nanofacturing technology. Think of it as essentially a 3D printer which can handle arbitrary molecular components with single-atom resolution. (It doesn’t have to: a lot of the time it can simply place pre-assembled multi-atom components picked out of its feed, but the point is that it can.) While it can use free-floating assembler nanites as part of its operation, the vast majority of the work is done in a supercooled vacuum chamber by an array of distant descendants of the atomic force microscope. The materials supply it needs is fed to it as a suspension of molecular components called nanoslurry available in a variety of forms, supplied as a utility from a central nanosource that makes the stuff from raw materials and recycles the return feed of all the stuff that the nanofacs don’t use.

Most important to note is that a nanofac is not a discrete thing you can buy itself – it’s just the term for the central construction array as a module.

What you can buy, on the other hand, is a cornucopia, which is a general-purpose construction device that comes in sizes ranging from desktop-printer-sized (the ubiquitous nanoforge) to dishwasher/fridge size. These are common household, etc., appliances, packaged as vending machines by companies like Valuematic Vending, and are basically a user interface/power supply/etc. wrapped around an appropriate nanofac. They can make pretty much anything you can describe in a recipe, or conceptual seed, to give it its formal name, although if it’s something too big to fit into its vacuum chamber what you’ll get is a heap of parts over several runs which you have to assemble manually following the v-tags after you get them out. (They may or may not bond permanently once you do this.)

specialized cornucopia, on the other hand, is a fabber. These exist because in nanofacturing, there’s essentially a scale with versatility at one end and efficiency at the other. A cornucopia is a magical device that can make everything, but isn’t the fastest or most efficient way to make anything in particular.

So there are fabbers, which trade off that ability for greater speed and efficiency and customized user-friendliness in doing one particular thing. So while you want a cornucopia available to you, certainly, what you want in your wardrobe is a clothing fabber, in your kitchen is a food fabber, in your sickbay is a pharmafabber, in your wet bar is a cocktail fabber, etc., etc.

And finally, it’s worth noting that assembling things atom by atom, or molecule by molecule, is not actually a terribly efficient way to do things in the first place. It works fine for small objects, sure, where the convenience outweighs the inefficiency, and especially for those made out of lots of tiny components with fine detail to assemble. But large things, especially large things with large areas of relatively homogeneous structure, you really don’t want to make that way.

Which is where autofacs come in. An autofac is a automated assembly system that contains an array of nanofacs for making individual detailed components, but which also contains lathes and drills and presses and kilns and extruders and all manner of other macroscale manufacturing-process equipment, along with plenty of motile robots whose job is to do the assembly of all the different outputs of these processes into the end product. (So they take in nanoslurry for the ‘facs, but also metal ingots, ceramic powder, plastic granules, etc., etc., as their raw materials.)

These vary in size from the relatively modest autofacs you’ll find in most neighborhoods, belonging to companies like Ubiquifac, whose job is to construct large goods people have ordered on-line at a point relatively local to them for immediate delivery, up through larger factories – such as the ones that take nanoslurry and sheet metal in at one end and have finished vehicles drive out the other – all the way to truly giant many-square-miles really-can-build-anything complexes like the Hive.

Trope-a-Day: ISO Standard Human Spaceship

ISO Standard Human Spaceship: They’re “realistic” designs, involving designing for microgravity, with nuclear engines out on the end of long trusses and no particular need to worry about aerodynamics or putting all your machinery inside the pressure hull, but —

1. They’re not painted grey or left as uncolored metal. This is not the ocean, there is no stealth in space, and there’s no real advantage to being a bland and neutral color. And while you could save some mass by leaving off the chameleon nanopaint, true, there is another consideration – namely, in close orbit operations, or while alongside a habitat, people can see you, and people who can afford private spaceyachts want them to look gorgeous, of course, but more importantly, everyone from Stellar Express to Constellation Dream-Lines spent a lot of money on their corporate color scheme and logo, and they want it splashed all over the hull in living animated Technicolor.  Half the captains in space don’t even turn the running lights off when they leave orbit just in case someone might be pointing a telescope their way.

(ISS and IMS ships are generally colored Imperial indigo, with gold trim.  Crimson striping is optional on those vessels operating under diplomatic privilege.)

2. Being visibly constructed from riveted plates is distinctly disfavored; rivets imply seams, seams imply weak spots, weak spots involve the possibility of messy vacuum-aided death. While it would be ludicrously inefficient to nanogrow an entire hull as one seamless unit, they do like to use nanopastes to make the seams go away afterwards. They do have the usual number of ports, sensors, and antennae attached in various places, though.

3. While you can certainly draw a box around them – and goodness knows a lot of less, ah, aesthetically sensitive species seem to think that the ideal shape for a freighter is a large steel box with an engine stuck on one end – it would be hard to describe a typical Imperial vessel as “boxy”. As soon as autofabrication made it possible to do grand, sweeping pseudo-organically curved shapes, naval architects dug their last few centuries of idle sketches of cool-looking but impractical ships out of the closet and ran with them, at least for civilian use – often in shapes that don’t enclose, but do conceal, all the heavy machinery and massive spherical fuel tanks and cryocels mounted on trusses outside the pressure hull. Or at least the bits of it that don’t look cool, while coyly revealing the parts of it that do. (And even the military ships aren’t all that boxy.)

And then, of course, there are the thermal radiators, which often resemble great curved wings of one kind or another when fully extended, even if they’re not solid (the most common radiator types are sheets of droplets extending from sprayer to collector).

4. For reasons explained elsewhere, there are no space fighters designed to be flown by meat. Such things have negative combat advantages and no survivability whatsoever.

(As a side note, while every bit as impractically fancy, in many cases, as the extensive brightwork of Royal Navy warships or East India Company merchantmen in the old tall ship days, the colorful paint jobs and excitingly sweeping shapes serve much the same memetic purpose: “we’re rich and powerful and successful enough that we can spend lots of time and effort on this stuff without impairing the basic functionality of the ship at all, so draw appropriate conclusions before startin’ something”.)

A Diamond Is… Really A Very Simple Molecular Structure

“The models you can see in this room,” said the guide, “represent some of the first models of carbon organizer.  Carbon organizers were the earliest and simplest form of dry nanotechnology, capable of building simple molecular structures from carbon and hydrogen atoms only.  While this may seem trivial, they formed the basis of the synthetic oil manufacturing industry that we’ll talk about later in our tour, and, of course, were responsible for the Diamond Crash.”

“Here, for scale,” he continued, crossing to one particular stand, “you can see the largest gem-quality diamond ever found in nature; the Heart of the Moon, which in its rough state weighed in at just under nineteen ounces.  In its cut state, as you see here, it still weighs twelve ounces, and in the pre-Crash days, was valued at over 124 million esteyn.  After the Diamond Crash, House Selequelios donated it to one of the Museum’s predecessors.”

“And now, gentlesophs, if you’d care to turn around…”

The curtain slid back.  Light blazed from the sixty-foot obelisk, and the tour group gasped as one.

This is our very own Monument to the Crash, or looked at another way, to the start of the Prosperity.  What you are looking at is a single internally perfect diamond crystal, weighing a little over 5,800,000 pounds.  It is, a few cases of diamond plating on structures aside, the single largest pure diamond crystal ever grown, a record that is unlikely to be broken, since few of its industrial and commercial – mostly low-end ornamentation – applications call for crystals quite this large, and since pure diamond is both brittle and quite flammable, its potential structural niches are for the most part filled by various adamant-type diamondoids, sapphireglass, and more advanced nanocomposites.”

“Of course, it’s rather less valuable than the Heart of the Moon was pre-crash; the value of raw diamond on today’s market is a little under one taltis per pound, which makes the whole Monument worth approximately 45,000 esteyn in total.”

“If you’ll follow me into the next room, you can see a carbon organizer in action, a simple model that extrudes bar diamond from ambient atmospheric gases.  This particular model is still on the market, because while there’s little demand for the product per se, many worlds find it useful on a larger scale for pulling excess carbon out of their atmospheres in an easy-to-store and readily releasable – by simple incineration – form.”

“We slice up the bars into half-foot sections for souvenirs, which you’ll see on the table to your left.  Please, help yourself to one, or two, or as many as you like to take home.  No charge.”  He coughed.  “Although I should perhaps mention that most jewelers, even the ones who don’t insist on an authenticated provenance, will check to ensure that there are at least some natural-looking flaws in the stones they buy, these days.”