Monday, May 25, 2015

About The Hot Equations

Ken Burnside makes a brave attempt to discuss the actual implications of thermodynamics in space warfare. It is on the 2015 Hugo ballot for Best Related Work. Unfortunately, he gets a lot wrong.
In space, the horizon assumption is almost always wrong. The one exception is Low Earth Orbit (LEO), where the limb of the earth can temporarily obscure something for roughly an eighth of an orbital period; this is about a 15-minute window, tops. Detection range is never limited by terrain for militarily significant increments of time. 
Not true for sufficiently distant observers. For an observer on Mars or Ceres, a ship in LEO is going to be eclipsed almost half an orbital period. In a hostile environment, this is exactly when the Earth ship would choose to make major delta-v changes.
With an emissions spectrum on your drive flare, plus distance and proper motion, they can determine the mass pushed by that drive flare. Making your spacebattleship look like a space rowboat doesn't work, and neither do decoys, which need the same drive signature, apparent motion, and mass as the ship they're duplicating. 
You can’t make a battleship look like a rowboat, but you can make a rowboat look like a battleship. A rocket engine is designed to convert as much of the energy used as possible into accelerating propellant. A mechanism designed to simply produce the same amount of heat and lighter will be lighter, simpler, cheaper and use less energy. Compare, for example a welding torch to a rocket engine with the same thermal output. Similarly, a craft with electric propulsion could route electricity directly to radiators to simulate the heat signature of a much more massive craft.
The usual counter-argument made is "I'll just drift in, with engines cold and go undetected." Your life support system and power plant will be a detectable signal once your engine turns off, and they'll know where to look. 
Again, a decoy can have a heat source to simulate a manned ship running without thrust. And unmanned ships can hibernate while not under thrust, with very low power output. We’ve already shown that unmanned craft can be lethal weapons platforms, even when operating in the unpredictable environment of an atmosphere with weather.
The ion thrusters used by NASA's probes to Pluto have ISPs of around 10,000 seconds with a thrust of around 4milligees. 
NASA’s one probe to Pluto, New Horizons, does not use ion thrusters. The author is evidently thinking of Deep Space 1 and Dawn, both asteroid missions.
The combat actions won't be naval in nature, at least in the conventional Battleof Jutland sense. They'll be closer to anti-piracy actions in the Sea of Cebu or the Gulf of Aden; a pirate will lay in wait at a point where a ship must make a course correction – and where missing that correction by a few hours can result in everyone aboard dying of starvation – and capture the ship to hold for ransom.  
This shows a profound misunderstanding of orbital mechanics. First, most cargo missions won’t need a crew and won’t have one. Second, capturing a ship at interplanetary speeds is much easier said than done.

Consider a specific scenario: the asteroid pirates in Poul Anderson’s 1966 The Moonrakers. Robot freighters travel on Hohmann Orbits between Mars and the Jovian Moons, and space pirates from the asteroids match courses and loot them as they pass through the asteroid belt. There are several problems with this concept.

Simply matching courses takes a lot of delta-v, even if the most efficient course is chosen, and the most efficient course is a very long haul for the pirate crew. Getting away with the loot requires still more delta-v, and another long haul for the pirate crew. For most goods, it’s probably cheaper to buy honestly in Mars orbit and ship to the belt on a robot freighter.

Second, if Burnside is correct that plausible space drives are visible at great distances, it will be quite difficult for the pirates to either achieve surprise or get away without being tracked and targeted. 

Third, reliably disabling enough of the freighter’s systems to make it safe to board without damaging the cargo will be tricky, even if the pirates can achieve surprise. And I can imagine a lot of ways a bloody-minded owner could booby trap a ship so that unauthorized boarding becomes too risky for any rational pirate.

Monday, May 11, 2015

The Goblin Emperor

Just finished The Goblin Emperor. The 2015 Hugo novel category is going to be just fine. There’s at least one novel with likable and sympathetic characters, good plot, and good world building. The punctilious steampunk elves are definitely not Tolkein, but language notes at the back would have totally warmed the cockles of Tolkein's heart, with  a detailed discussion of elvish forms of address explicitly noting gender, marital status and social rank.

You will probably find it helpful to read that part first.

The author succeeded in making me care about the protagonist and his allies and friends. Also, elvish airships are cool.

Monday, May 04, 2015

The Quality of Puppies

I haven't read all of them yet, but in the short fiction Hugo categories dominated by puppies, most of the nominees don't seem to be worthy of a Hugo. Why?

I think there are two main reasons. The simplest is that, for the nominations exclusive to the Rabid Puppies, Vox Day is not a good judge of writing quality, in my opinion. He can't tell when he himself is writing badly, and he is inordinately fond of works published by his own tiny Castalia House, which publishes works that are passed over by larger publishers with better distribution and marketing.

The Sad Puppies are a bit different. I believe that the were honest in their desire to pick worthy writing, but they handicapped themselves in several ways.

The first was their stated goal to support works that wouldn't get on the ballot without their boost. That means that writers who have shown the ability to get nominated without puppy support were off the table, in theory. That's a lot of good writers.

In practice, the Sad Puppies made some exceptions for editors and dramatic presentations. Because I'm pretty sure that most of them would have been on the ballot without their help.  But putting Resnick and Weiskopf on the ballot was such a wonderful opportunity to stick it to the SJWs that it couldn't be passed up.

I have no idea why they picked Sheila Gilbert. She seems like a good person. But if you are picking a slate to show you are not sexist, you must include some females.

The second is that they ruled out writers tainted as Social Justice Warriors, as defined by them. This also narrows the field. I realize that they have tried to spin this as wanting authors who put good storytelling ahead of message, but this is quite subjective. The reader's tolerance for message increases when the message is congenial.  Indeed, if the author's view of the world matches the reader's, the message may be invisible to the reader.

I found their two John C. Wright nominations to have quite a lot of message, but I'm not a conservative Catholic.  For calibration, I think the Narnia books were a bit heavy on the message, but Gene Wolfe is fine.

The third is that the Sad slate was ultimately constructed by just four authors: Correlia, Torgersen and  two anonymous authors. Their ability to capture the best of the best was limited by how widely they read. Based on the slate, it seems that they were mostly fond of MilSF, Urban Fantasy and C. S. Lewis homages.  Which doesn't seem to adequately capture the full spectrum of the SF/F genre.

Also, I don't think their subjective view of the best SF/F writing of 2014 is quite the same as the median Hugo voter. I know it isn't mine.


Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly identified Tom Kratman as one of the group creating the Sap Puppy slate.



Consider Puppies

In his aptly titled blog post Rant: Sad Puppies vs. Anti-Puppies, as the Kilostreisands Pile Up, Jeff Duntemann argues

My conclusion is this: The opponents of Sad Puppies of Sad Puppies 3 put them on the map, and probably took them from a fluke to a viable long-term institution.

and:
I’ve seen a few comments that go something like this: “I’d never heard of the Sad Puppies before. I’ve been trying to figure out which side is right, but the sheer nastiness of the Sad Puppies’ critics makes me think they’re just sore losers. I’m more or less with the Puppies now.”

I'm not sure I agree with you a hundred percent on your police work, there, Jeff.  What put the Sad and Rabid Puppies on the map was their effective but unsporting gaming of the Hugo nominations that let them dominate the ballot. Before that they were getting very little attention outside the readership of their own blogs.

And someone new to the controversy would have to be pretty selectively tone deaf not to notice the sheer nastiness among the puppies themselves.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Bolos and Hugos

Back when I was in High School, in the early 1970s, I loved Keith Laumer's Bolo stories about gigantic cybertanks. I later designed a war game featuring early model Bolos (MK I-III) and I did illustrations for Steve Jackson's Ogre war games, which were basically Bolos with the serial numbers filed off.

What I learned creating the war game is that gigantic supertanks are very hard to make work at all. If anti-tank missiles become much more effective than APDS, and a supertank can carry an effective point defense system against anti-tank missiles, then maybe a supertank works. But neither has happened in our timeline. In the Laumerverse MK II Bolos were already a thing by 2015. But clearly, not in our universe.

So Laumer's Cold War Bolo era stories involved a lot of handwaving away of engineering issues. Even with exactly the right technological advances, roads, bridges and airlift remain as major roadblocks. And that doesn't begin to deal with tactical nukes being consumed like popcorn. The idea of firing a nuke beneath the Bolo and leaving it inverted at the bottom of an enormous crater was never addressed to my satisfaction.

In the wargame, it turned out that the Bolos worked best as only one part of a combined arms team, and needed to be used with great caution. Optimal tactics involved shoot and scoot plinking at long range far behind the front while the mobile infantry went in advance identifying targets, with artillery support from even further back, not gleefully surging forward to grind the enemy beneath your treads.

So the near future Bolo stories have not aged well. The interstellar Bolo stories, in addition,  required a level of handwavium technology that made interstellar wars of conquest fought on the planet surface economically rational and common.

Because you need some seriously improbable magical technology to make that work, if you think about it.

Imagine the energy required to boost the Normandy Invasion to, say, .9 c and brake at the destination. Now imagine what it would take to send it on a FTL mission.

Compare that with what it would take to send a swarm of .9 c kill vehicles sufficient to sterilize one side of a planet without braking, and another half a planetary rotation later.

Orders of magnitude less, yes?

So the interstellar Bolo stories have not aged well for me, either. Too much suspension of disbelief required.

On this year's Hugo ballot there's a novella by Tom Kratman: Big Boys Don't Cry, that is essentially a Bolo pastiche with the serial numbers filed off. There was an earlier version that was much more explicitly derivative, with Bolos and Hellbores  and Infinite Repeaters. These references have been removed in the current version, but it's still derivative, and I am still currently bouncing off the original Laumerverse, so no Hugo vote from me.

To his credit, Kratman has a few interesting things to say about the ethics of treating self-aware AI as slaves, but his meatsacks are remarkably morally obtuse about the self-aware war machines they employ. Which was a problem with Laumer as well.

However, Kratman does make his meatsack villains so thoroughly corrupt and evil that they come across as cardboard black hats, leaving the feeling that Kratman has stacked his narrative deck.

Also, if I'm reading the story correctly, the black hats have a gigantic war machine with brain damage, which they decide to provide with enough power to break a weld and power a gauss rifle in the course of doing system diagnostics and they also neglect to unload all of its ammunition before dragging it away to be scrapped.

Which puts them in the Hogan's Heroes zone of villains who are simultaneously very evil and very incompetent.



Update: A previous version described the novella as Bolo fanfic rather than pastiche.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Keep Calm and Carry On

The fight for the Hugos continues

I was going to title this Keep Calm and Swat a Puppy, but that would be mean, and nobody wants to be mean, even to puppies that have widdled on the Hugo nomination carpet and richly deserve a swat with a rolled up newspaper.

So, who is coming out ahead? I say Mike Glyer, who is providing balanced coverage at File 770, with  an amusing SF/F puppy-related title every single day. Props to him. And his readers, who are clearly having fun suggesting puppy-related titles.

Team Puppies are not, in my opinion, covering themselves with glory at this time. The Sad Puppies are in the awkward position that their slate got a lot of mutual votes from the Rabid Puppies. So they must dance an awkward dance between "We have no association with the Rabids, although we have obviously benefited from their nominations" and "We refuse to disavow the Rabids in any way, because you can't make us and we don't want to, and we're not saying we don't approve of them, but we won't say we do approve of them either." I think they fall between two stools.

The File 770 readers are mostly having fun and being funny. The puppies, not so much.

The Rabids are Rabid. That is all.


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

SpaceX Crashes and Burns, Again

If your stated goal is to land the first stage of your rocket on a barge in a condition suitable for reuse, then landing on the barge in such a way that the stage topples over and explodes is not actually a success.

I''m sure they learned valuable lessons about how to do it better next time. But spectacular success?  I don't see it.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Some People in Fandom Are Very Generous

For those of you who care about the Hugo awards, Mary Robinette Kowal and some anonymous donors have made a very generous offer. It is particularly generous of Ms. Kowal since she feels it will require her to decline any Hugo nominations next year.  I praise them.

Monday, April 13, 2015

1965 Heinlein Couldn't Win a Hugo Today

Of course, he couldn't win one then, either. Because Farnham's Freehold.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

"Social Justice Warriors"

The only reason this isn't quite as devoid of meaning in ordinary use as "fascist" is that the people that use it as a pejorative are loudly signaling which tribal clique they affiliate with. I know I probably shouldn't interrupt them when making a mistake, but they probably won't listen to me in any case.

So, here's the thing. The people that think Social Justice Warrior is actually an objective term complain that SJWs are forcing "Political Correctness" upon them.

For them, those that criticize those that call same sex affection a "sexual aberration" are intolerant, but calling it a sexual aberration is just free speech.

No.

"Homosexuals are deviants" is an actual political view. It's free country, and I will defend to the death your right to say it, but you are wrong. And if you start flailing about with "Help, help, I'm being oppressed by the SJWs", you are just doubling down on your wrong.