Friday, November 19, 2010

Searching For McGuffinite


Humans will reach the planets in this century; at least there is a rather good chance that we will, without ever needing to be explicit about Step Two. The inherent coolness of space travel, along with national vanity and parochial economic interests, has turned out to be sufficient for half a century. There is no inherent reason why this should not remain the case into or through the midfuture, as our steadily growing capabilities carry us outward.

What this highly plausible space future does not have room for, however, is most of our favorite space tropes. Last post I made a comparison of space to Antarctica. The popular literature of polar exploration is tiny, and most of what there is deals with the early days. (Amundsen and Shackleton are the two names I remember off of hand.) Real space travel may turn out very similar. People will work very hard and spend a great deal of money to see to it that dramatic adventures do not happen in space.

Nor does the human scale of the thing lend itself to space opera. In the early interplanetary era - and, in all likelihood, for a long time after - there may be hundreds of people in space, but probably not thousands and certainly not millions. There will be a space economy, but no economy in space: the ships will be transports, not liners, and certainly not tramp freighters. (Sob!)

For story purposes this is not what we want. We want a lot of people in space. We want the outposts to grow into bases, then towns, then cities, and of course we mostly want them to end up fighting space battles with each other. For this we need a justification.

At least in 'Murrican science fiction, the profit motive is enshrined as probably necessary and certainly sufficient reason to go into space on whatever scale is desired. This attitude is not just confined to the libertarian-minded; Evil Megacorps in Space are a variation on the same theme. (I am not sure how it is elsewhere. Clarke's space midfuture, at least in his earlier stories, seemed not unlike the 'realistic' vision I portrayed above.)

The most popular profit motive has been mining. This is only natural. Mining fits the broad Western trope, and it does take people to the most Godforsaken places.

You have to make a few friendly assumptions to get space mining for terrestrial use to pan out (so to speak). But the subtler problem is then what? Suppose we learned that the rings of Saturn are full of McGuffinite. There is not going to be a rush of would-be Belters heading out to be Ringers instead.

Instead there will be some very big consortium formed, or a handful of them, probably with more than cozy relationships with existing national or para-national space agencies. A very focused program will develop the technology to do one thing: Go to the rings of Saturn, extract McGuffinite, and bring the stuff back to Earth. This effort will not go anywhere or do anything else. (With a limited but potentially important exception I'll get to below.) It will involve the necessary minimum number of humans in space, especially Saturn space; from every operational perspective the optimum is zero.

And once in place, beyond Earth orbit the mining operation may scarcely interact with other space activity. Mining transports headed for the Rings do not stop off at Mars or Titan. The experience of developing countries is that resource extraction infrastructure is not very helpful. The rail line runs from a seaport to the mine, and even the seaport is chosen for access to the mine, not its potential as a general trade entrepot.

Resource extraction is an economic monoculture, and like other monocultures it does not support a rich ecosystem.

The most popular political McGuffinite, a great power arms race, has a rather similar problem. As earlier discussions here have shown, great power warfare scenarios offer little role for space cruisers in whatever form. Only for laser stars that may well be robotic, and kinetic killer buses that will certainly be.

A somewhat different matter is resource extraction in space for use in space, such as the popular lunar shipbuilding industry. This is not McGuffinite, because it is not a reason to go into space. It is something you do only when you are already in space, and in a big way.

And of course there are other complications. Building spacecraft requires an enormous industrial base, and every pipe wrench has to come up from Earth unless you set up a pipe wrench factory or at least a fab. The lower energy cost of orbit lift from the Moon can evaporate quickly when you consider all the front end and operating costs.

It will be a long time before we have production industries in space.

An exception could be propellant, because space travel uses so much of it, and it is fairly simple stuff. Once we are regularly going somewhere with accessible volatiles, there will be consideration of obtaining propellant from them. This is not as simple as it is often made to sound. For example, all the ice on Mars is no use to deep space craft unless you lift it to Mars orbit, a major spacelift operation even if you can do it with a one stage vehicle. And there is no space infrastructure on Mars but what we take there.

I would say that the early interplanetary era ends on the day that a ship makes a routine burn in Earth orbital space using propellant that did not come from Earth.

Propellant production differs from McGuffinite mining in one crucial respect: It is inherently tied to the rest of the space infrastructure. And space travel is no longer entirely geocentric; for the first time, some of what happens in space stays in space.

Still a long ways from the Solar Confederation versus the Planetary Union, but everything has to start somewhere.

If I were working out a future history with a serious illusion of plausibility, I would stay away from McGuffinite. It is an ancient, overused crutch, and not a convincing one. Given worlds enough and time (and both are available), exports to Earth may well arise, as consequences rather than cause of space exploration. These may be - almost certainly will be - entirely unexpected and counterintuitive.

To quote myself, from last year's 'A Solar System For This Century':

Someone will find out that burgundy grapes grown in a Martian greenhouse have a distinct flavor. Pretty soon they are shipping back little airline size bottles that sell for $500, with just enough for a toast, and 'robustly Martian' ends up being used to describe burgundies from lands where Charles the Bold once ruled.
Unlike McGuffinite, Martian burgundy doesn't have to be globally profitable - paying back the cost of going to Mars in the first place, or even the cost of the transport system. It only needs to be locally and marginally profitable ('marginal' in the formal economic sense, not precarious). Those little bottles only need to pay for themselves, their contents, and the extra propellant to get them to Earth. Ivan Q(ing) Taxpayer already paid for the transport ships, though you'd never know it from the collected works of the wine industry council.

Multiply such serendipities and, gradually, the human space ecosystem grows more complex. Oenologists now have a place on Mars, bringing a body of specialized knowledge and also an outlook on life and civilization.

This sort of thing takes time, probably lots of it, because it cannot be planned, it can only evolve. It may not happen. Indeed it probably will not happen, even in a future of interplanetary travel, because space travel is inherently so difficult.

But it is the one most likely path to get you from Earth to space opera.



The imagined image of Cassini, as so often, comes from Atomic Rockets.

274 comments:

«Oldest   ‹Older   201 – 274 of 274
Jedidia said...

Neural implants like that are going to make people stupider in the long run. They'll use the system to reference the internet rather than actually memorizing things.

That has nothing to do with stupidity. My generation was already memorizing a lot less at school than people used to 50 years ago, and I wouldn't call us more stupid than the last generation for that.

The focus shifted heavily to analytic thinking and thought processing, because that's the requirements of our time: You can get the information, so knowing the information is secondary. You have to be able to make use of it, that's what counts.

I was free to look up my formulae at every test in professional school, while my father who learned the same job 40 years before me had to memorize them all. I'm not more stupid because of that, because the chances of finding yourself without a reference are almost nil nowadays, so it doesn't make much sense to memorize them in the first place. If the access to information becomes even more easy, that trend is likely to continue.

Tony said...

Jedidia:

"That has nothing to do with stupidity. My generation was already memorizing a lot less at school than people used to 50 years ago, and I wouldn't call us more stupid than the last generation for that. "

Kind of undermines your whole thesis, J. We memorized things like the multiplication tables, and rules of grammar and spelling, because educated people were expected to know stuff, to not have to ask others or look in references for simple facts. In the process we learned how to learn. Your generation may not be stupider, but from what I saw when I went back to complete college in my late 30s, it simply doesn't know much.

Tony said...

Da!

Milo said...

Citizen Joe:

"Neural implants like that are going to make people stupider in the long run. They'll use the system to reference the internet rather than actually memorizing things."

And our present-day internet access doesn't?

Anyway, I find that even with cheap access to information, there is still value in memory. For one thing, the internet is large and hard to find stuff in - even if you keep numerous bookmarks, it's useful to actually remember a summary of what each of your bookmarked sites teaches. For another, memory is needed to cross-reference information on one site with information on another.

Jedidia said...

it simply doesn't know much.

That is certainly true, but you can get along very well nowadays with knowing less. For what less we know, interlinked thinking capabilities and concluding usually have improved. I live in a country that is a few decades behind my country of birth, where the major focus in school is still laid on memorizing, and the people here have my full respect for the vast pieces of knowledge they carry around in their minds.

However, I also notice that most people have no clue about what to do with all that knowledge. There's no interlinked thinking taught in schools, no reflection, they never had to come to a conclusion by themselfes. All they had to do was memorize conclusions from somebody else. Hence they know a lot, but usually understand what they know very badly.

While in my country of origin it is usual that you go and look things up, but are then better able to understand what it is we're actually reading. Of course I'm generalizing a bit, but it's a rather statistical topic after all.

Suppose you have the whole database in a brain implant, there really wouldn't be much point in memorizing anything anymore. It will probably be higher priority to train how to use the thing properly.

But we're getting kind of OT here.

Tony said...

Re: Jedidia

I guess I should have been clearer about what I meant. Knowing stuff aslo applies to complex information. We used to memorize long passages of poetry, not because we were simply exercising our brains, but because we were being presented an integrated cultural concept that our teachers wanted us to internalize. We were taught that to really understand a book, we had to read it three times -- once to grasp the outline, twice to fill in details, and a third time to integrate the two. Knowing stuff wasn't about working out the synapses, it was about building a database that could inform thinking and discussion.

And that's my real objection to the way kids are taught today. They're taught that if a subject comes up, they need to google it or -- horror of horrors -- read a book. When I was in my twenties, a young person with a decent college prep education (not even a college degree) was simply expected to know a certain amount of cultural and technical knowledge without the aid of reference.

And I don't mean force-fed attitudes, I mean knowledge. Whether you thought that Brutus or Anthony was the hero of Julius Caesar, you knew who the characters were and what the arguments were for and against each. You knew that F=ma and d=.5at^2 without having to look it up, whether you applied that knowledge to rocketry or automotive technology. You knew something about the US government and the Constitution, whether you grew up to be a conservative or a liberal.

You just don't see that in many kids today. Not that they're stupid, or even ignorant of what they've been taught. It's just that they've been really taught so little, and led on grazing expeditions over so much. They may call it "interlinked thinking", but to me it's just shallow.

Rick said...

I just realized that by elfing the spam comment completely I left Tony's comment hanging in air. Suffice to say it was Russian language spam, and now it is gone.

Literacy et al. have nothing to do with McGuffinite but are certainly on topic to the broader discussion of this blog.

Preliterate societies could run memory rings around us, like the dynamic retelling of epic poems. Memorizing information and knowing how to look it up are very different and rather complementary skills.

The Internet is an excellent source of superficial information. If I want to check the orbital distance of Saturn, Wikipedia is great.

For depth of knowledge there is no substitute for books (well, maybe personal tutoring by a polymath ...) You can get in depth information off the Internet, but it requires some google fu and is generally inefficient.

Books, I'd guess, have always been a minority taste, but a significant fraction of the current generation of teenagers did themselves some major Harry Potter, so they are no strangers to the immersive power of extended text.

Tony said...

Re: Rick

I think it is significant and unusual that JK Rowling came of age in a learning environment that Rick and I would easily recognize, but one that many twentysomethings today would find quite foreign. Stephenie Meyer is more common of what kids are reading today.

Milo said...

Tony:

I know a lot. My "knowledge" is predominantly stuff that I looked up on Google in enough detail for it to stick.

That way, my knowledge grows organically based on what I feel is relevant to me, rather than being force-fed a stale set of facts that someone arbitrarily decided is the baseline of what everyone should know.

I will confess to not being especially knowledgeable on classic literature, but I know the characters and motivations of a variety of webcomics - you know, stuff I actually read (and the first person to criticize webcomics as an art form gets shot) - without constantly checking the cast page.

And yes, like you said, rereading something often helps you understand it better. That's the very essence of the Google system. Whenever you find your understanding lacking, you look the facts up and reread them, until in due time (if you actually care enough about the subject) you'll remember all the important bits. Rather than the school decreeing that you are to read something N times over in a row, and then you had better remember it well enough because you aren't seeing the text again.

Oh, and: this. It's easier to remember stuff you're actually paying attention to.

Jim Baerg said...

Tony November29 9:16pm -"That's still the heat engine approach, which I think is what Rick is objecting to.

Also, running a reactor at higher heat should, in principle, use up the fuel faster. Maybe it uses the fuel more efficiently, but I'm not sure."

A higher operating temperature allows higher efficiency at turning heat into work. IINM it's easier to make good use of the high temperature with a working fluid that is a gas through the whole cycle than something that liquifies for part of the cycle & it's mechanically simpler.

"Having thought about it a little more, I'm not sure there's a way to extract electrical energy from a controlled nuclear reaction except through a heat engine."

Most of the energy of the fission comes out in the kinetic energy of the 2 nuclei which are *roughly* half the mass of the fissioned nucleus, rather than the kinetic energy of the neutrons. Those fission products are charged, but it's hard to see a way to get the energy except by heating up the bulk fuel. However,if you operate the reactor at over 1000 °C the possible efficiency goes way up. My understanding is that using water as the heat transfer fluid limits the operating temperature & so the efficiency of current nuclear power plants.

Tony November 29 9:35pm -"The problem with molten salt cooling is that the coolant is solid at STP."

For zero gee operation I'm dubious of any design that uses a liquid rather than a gas for heat transfer. Gravity tends to keep liquids & gasses where you want them rather than having them exchange places. Molten salt would be fine for earth or any other body with significant gravity & I mentioned it just as something for earth use that is more efficient & maybe more elegant than current nuclear reactor designs.

Citizen Joe said...

A neural interface wouldn't be all that complicated. You start with the interface box at the back of the neck. This injects nanites into your spinal cord which then trace paths back into the brain following neural pathways. As they expand, they leave their husks behind as the new neural pathway. Now, when you think something (probably some sort of muscle movement), a signal gets sent down the normal pathways as another signal traces back parallel on the nanite pathway. You then hook up a multiplexer to the neck. The user then 'thinks' a specific action and the multiplexer reads the signals. Repeat that thought and the system learns a specific action. That action is then tasked to some robotic device to perform something. That device could be a cybernetic arm, allowing the subject to grasp something. If you are particularly adept at thinking actions, you could probably use it for more complex activities like web surfing.

Jedidia said...

It feels a bit like we're getting ourselves into a modernism vs. postmodernism debate here. Why does this always happen to me?

And to stay on topic, could the rise of postmodernism (the naturally emerging worldview, not the completely bonkers accademic philosophy) affect spaceflight in any way?

Geoffrey S H said...

My school always required many texts read several times to understand them.

When we statrted doing the Soviets (particularily Stalin) in history, we even had access to some primary-source archive in a published text in the library to go through.

And when one takes the teaching of history now and compares it with that of Oxford or Cambridge in the late 19th century, there is DEFINATELY an improvement now. the level of examination is harder (10 questions over three hours- all of a opurely factual basis with minimal analysis and all had to be done in 17 and a half minutes).

There needs to be more use of memory in education, definatly. But to say that the standared has gone down universally, I would think is a little over the top.

Tony said...

Re: Milo

You're making my point for me. You know what you want to know, and nothing else. That's why we have an increasingly fragmented, niche-oriented society.

And nobody was force-fed a "stale set of facts" in any school I went to. We were required to know useful facts. We were also required to know something -- not always the same thing -- about various items in a core set of culturally significant works.

Re: Citizen Joe

You lost me at "nanites". We're talking about the plausible, not about fantasy.

Re: Jedidia

Modernism vs postmodernism is a serious issue. Postmodernism is the death of culture. And that's in the context of people, as early as the 1970s, questioning whether Americans had any culture to begin with.

Re: Geoffrey S H

Nothing is universal. But there's been a definite loss of corporate cultural knowledge in America over the course of my life.

Jedidia said...

Modernism vs postmodernism is a serious issue. Postmodernism is the death of culture.

The death of culture seems greatly exagerated. The mingling of culture would seem more apropriate. I.e. the decrease of cultural diversity, yes. But also the rise of new cultures, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. And I know that it's a serious issue, just that I'm on the postmodern end, so it's understandable that you and I might have quite a different perspective on the topic. I don't quite understand the outright hostility with which many modernists confront postmodernism, considering that modernity was a time of unseen bloodshed and raging ideologies. Also of course a time of unseen scientific and technological progress, I'm not denying that. There's always two sides to a coin, and only history will show the two sides of postmodernism. We can't stop the developement anyways.

Tony said...

Re: Jedidia

We have to be careful about what we call "modernism" and "postmodernism". Speaking strictly, even modernism is beyond what I'm talking about when I reference "culture", because modernism rejected traditional cultural referents in literature, religion, art, philosophy, etc. But at least modernism recognized that there were technical and philosophical standards of quality that had to be lived up to, even amidst all the freedom of expression. In that sense, modernism was a quest for artistic and philosophical purity.

In any case, the real problem with postmodernism is that all received culture is presumed to be invalid and must be alayzed as one might analyze a psychopathic killer. The outright and wholesale rejection of received culture that has become en vogue has led to a moral and intellectual wasteland among the youth of the Western world.

Raymond said...

"In any case, the real problem with postmodernism is that all received culture is presumed to be invalid and must be alayzed as one might analyze a psychopathic killer. The outright and wholesale rejection of received culture that has become en vogue has led to a moral and intellectual wasteland among the youth of the Western world." - Tony

Gah. Not this hoary old trope again.

Postmodernism isn't about killing culture, or even about rejecting it. It's about the impossibility of any one fixed perspective, any one set of values, any one singular narrative. I consider it the general relativity of culture - everything has its own frame of reference (and things in other frames may appear warped).

We're not looking to destroy culture, merely take a good look, see where it came from, and perhaps leave some portions in the past where they belong.

As for the youth, well, I can't speak for all of them, but there are plenty of us young 'uns doing just fine - morally, intellectually, academically, computationally, and whatever the adverbial form of video games would be if someone were to attempt such a conjugation.

Tony said...

Re: Raymond

I have to respectfully disagree. While there are relative differences in interpretation across space and time, there has been a pretty solid base consensus about what is moral, what is artistic, what is philosophically valid, etc. That's why we can look at and appreciate Japanese wood block prints, why the Beatles could incorporate sitar in their music without it sounding discordant, why mysticism of all forms resonates to some degree with everybody, why Shakespeare is read in Eastern Europe. With all due respect, the idea that everything is relative is pseudo-intellectual humbug.

Raymond said...

Tony:

Perhaps we will have to respectfully disagree. I think you may be forgetting that the tentacular sex in Japanese woodblock prints (from the 17th century onward) is considered hideously immoral by much of the West; that the Beatles' use of sitar was considered revolutionary (and if you don't think the Beatles are postmodern, listen to Sgt Pepper again); that while some of us may study forms mysticism we do not all consider it useful; that Shakespeare's singular place atop the canon is still subject to debate (and one shouldn't read Shakespeare without also reading Marlowe, and probably Aeschylus).

"Relative" doesn't necessarily imply "unknown" or "indeterminate" or "impossible to ascertain". It does, however, imply that consensus is a statistical phenomenon, subject to variance and evolution, instead of carved into the structure of spacetime.

Milo said...

Citizen Joe:

"wouldn't be all that complicated." ... "This injects nanites"

Fail.



Tony:

"You know what you want to know, and nothing else."

I want to know quite a bit, though. What I "want to know" means anything I'm curious about, not just stuff that I actually need to know.



Raymond:

"I think you may be forgetting that the tentacular sex in Japanese woodblock prints (from the 17th century onward) is considered hideously immoral by much of the West;"

For that matter, the artistic nudity in classical European sculpture is also considered hideously immoral by much of the West. Or at least me.

Nevermind the question of what modern Japanese consider hideously immoral.

Tony said...

Re: Raymond

We may indeed have to disagree, but please let me try again. There are inescapable constants that apply across all cultures, and the only differences, WRT those constants, are differences in interpretation. For example, every culture has a concept of murder. What constitutes murder, and what is to be done about it, varies. But murder as a concept is, as near as I can tell, universal. That justice must be done in cases of murder is also, as near as I can tell, universal. Suggesting that murder itself is a relative concept is promoting parochialism in interpretation of murder to the level of a cultural metavalue. And I think that's manifestly invalid.

In almost any supposed instance of cultural relativity, one can find at base a difference of opinion and definition. But at base one can also find a shared human value. At that level, consensus is remarkably absolute, among reasonable persons. No matter where you go in the world, you find truth, justice, love, honor, and many other things highly valued. What those things mean may be different from place to place and time to time, but they all mean something in every place and time.

Rick said...

This blog has been here before, oddly enough: Rocketpunk Manifesto Goes PoMo! (Nothing particularly postmodern, though, about the image of Morena Baccarin AKA Inara from Firefly.)

I'd argue that both modernism and postmodernism are rather natural consequence of the 1900 era accelerando. Our whole inherited tradition was created within agrarian age civilizations, whose conditions were profoundly different from those of industrial societies.

On contemporary teen reading tastes, as you might expect I am quite unmoved by sensitive, sexually nonthreatening vampires. But Twilight is some 500 pages, give or take, so plenty of 12 year old girls also feel nonthreatened by a long text.

When I was a kid, kids were not expected to read such long books for pleasure - Heinlein's classic 'young adult' novels run more like 200-250 pages. Kids have been reading thousand page 'adult' fantasy trilogies for decades, but only with Harry Potter did the industry discover that it could sell long books specifically targeted to young readers.

I'd suggest that this is both a flip side of sequelitis and a sort of backlash against the kaleidoscope effect - readers, including young ones, prefer prolonged immersion in a world. The kids who are reading these long books stand a pretty good chance of also discovering the pleasures of long, immersive nonfiction.

Tony said...

I guess what I'm really objecting to is fragmentation of the culture. And I do lay that at the feet of postmodernism, because that movement has (summarily and gratuitously) assaulted the validity what used to be considered the cultural core curriculum. I would be the last to assert that received culture requires unthinking acceptance, but postmodernism has created an environment where acceptance at any level, regardless of thought and consideration, is considered passe and even wrong. (Don't say it ain't so Raymond -- I judge these things on what is really happening, not what apologists claim.)

Raymond said...

I wouldn't dare say that. I would certainly admit that there are plenty of postmodernists who haven't done a shred of work on their own perspective and biases. (I like to think I'm not among them; there's plenty of the old cultural "core curriculum" I appreciate.) That's their own myopia and their own problem.

I object to the "apologist" label, though. I rather enjoy the upsides to a fragmented culture (and there are many), and I don't think there's anything to apologize for.

Tony said...

Raymond:

"I object to the "apologist" label, though. I rather enjoy the upsides to a fragmented culture (and there are many), and I don't think there's anything to apologize for."

Didn't mean to call you one. I sincerely and wholeheartedly apologize for leaving that interpretation open.

More to the point...

Cultural variety is fine. I enjoy it as much as anyone else. But I don't think that one can completely appreciate the variety without a solid grounding in one's own traditional culture. IOW, without an anchor, the wind and the tides will take you anywhere they want, and that's more often bad than good.

Raymond said...

Tony:

"Didn't mean to call you one. I sincerely and wholeheartedly apologize for leaving that interpretation open."

No worries. Didn't think you were, but wanted to be sure.

"...without an anchor, the wind and the tides will take you anywhere they want..."

Until you learn to sail. (And yes, I mean that metaphorically, too.)

Jedidia said...

Dear God, what have I done?

Anyways, to my defense: I stated intentionally that I was talking about postmodernism as the naturally emerging worldview, majorly as a consequence of free and almost unlimited information access as well as (almost) unrestricted travel. I am not talking about the high philosophy of postmodernism, that has (frankly like all high philosophies it seems) gone so over the top that they even start to deny an existance of reality per se. I'll have none of that, mind you. A bit of common sense is an important thing, and always was.

It is rather the moral superiotrity of a certain culture that was so taken for granted during modernity that gets relativised in the broader worldview, not the culture in and of itself.
The common sets of moral principles Tony stated do exist, but only on the very basic level. Usually they concern murder and they concern theft, live and posession, two of the two basic human desires. However, it all gets rather difficult to pin down outside that. Adultery is present in most, but there are already exceptions, personal freedom is a concept unknown to a real lot of cultures, aso. The common set of basic values is really *very* small.

Tony said...

I'd really be extremely careful about the the decline of Western moral superiority being a good thing. We may yet come to seriously regret a loss of cultural confidence in the face of those who retain their own.

Anonymous said...

Tony, Raymond; Postmodernism is a method of criticing cultural values by comparing them to other culture's values (in an effort to discern universal values); however, so many people have misunderstood the concept of postmodernism to be the rejection of of all culturial norms or that all culturial values are relitive is what has discredited the postmodernist movement.

So, you're both right.

So...the search for McGuffinite would be different for everyone; some would go to the 'new outback' to search for PGM, or Rare Earth Elements (REE), or to profit from supplying colonists, or to mine HE3, or search for ET, or (the anti-McGuffinite) to excape from an oppressive homeland, as well as an any number of other motives.

Ferrell

M. D. Van Norman said...

“M. D. Van Norman may have been referring to the theory that the late Bronze Age civilizations collapsed due to something similar to the little ice age causing widespread famine, unrest and mass migration, but evidence for that is pretty sketchy at best.”

Actually, I was referring to what may well have happened when a large portion of humanity’s possible habitat was flooded at the beginning of the current interglacial period. Thanks to the caveman fallacy, we have little evidence for lost civilizations outside myth and legend.

Jim Baerg said...

M. D. Van Norman - "Actually, I was referring to what may well have happened when a large portion of humanity’s possible habitat was flooded at the beginning of the current interglacial period. Thanks to the caveman fallacy, we have little evidence for lost civilizations outside myth and legend."

How widespread & technologically advanced a'lost civilization' are you thinking of, & what do you mean by 'caveman fallacy'?

I think it plausible that there were cultures as sophisticated as the British Columbia coastal Amerindians living along some shorelines during the latest glacial period. If they were dependent on rich marine life they wouldn't spread inland to leave evidence in regions that are currently above water.

However, the lack of evidence for a high tech culture in inland regions means that any such culture would be limited by its means of subsistence to coastal regions & their artifacts would not have been conspicuously different from the paleolithic artifacts that are well known.

Rick said...

That is pretty much my impression. Agriculture and the beginning of urban life, at least in Anatolia, have (IIRC) been pushed back close to 10,000 BC, getting in hailing distance of the end of the last glacial period. So, while there's no specific reason to expect them, it would not be a shock if there are submerged towns down there, especially perhaps under the Black Sea.

OTOH, we can be pretty confident that any such proto-civilization was neolithic, because if they had produced metal artifacts in substantial numbers some of them should have ended up above present day sea level.

Scott said...

I have to respectfully disagree. While there are relative differences in interpretation across space and time, there has been a pretty solid base consensus about what is moral, what is artistic, what is philosophically valid, etc.
Is your father's word absolute? In Eastern cultures, what Dad says *is* what's going to happen. Similarly, your older siblings have a say in your life, too. If you judge culture by number of people following those rules, then us westerners are in the MINORITY, and are therefore 'wrong'.

Not all philosophical foundations are the same. In fact, there are very, very few universal cultural foundations. In that same concept, a father is within his rights to kill a child. It's not considered murder in *that* culture, even though it is considered murder in other cultures.

M. D. Van Norman said...

“How widespread & technologically advanced a ‘lost civilization’ are you thinking of, & what do you mean by ‘caveman fallacy’?”

People don’t usually live in caves, but caves do preserve the evidence of those who did.

Question: After tens of thousands of years, what evidence of an agricultural civilization will remain? Answer: Very little or none, especially if that civilization was on a low-lying temperate plane during the last glacial epoch.

Jim Baerg said...

"Question: After tens of thousands of years, what evidence of an agricultural civilization will remain? Answer: Very little or none, especially if that civilization was on a low-lying temperate plane during the last glacial epoch."

I don't see any reason to think the answer is 'little or none' for a time period less than 100,000 years.

If it was only below present sea level we wouldn't know much about it, but we have plenty of artifacts from that era in regions that are above present sea level.

Is there any reason to expect buried pottery fragments not to last 50 to 100 thousand years? Some clay figurines are close to that age range. Widespread pottery use would imply a settled culture, either agricultural or cultures like the BC coastal amerindians relying on such rich resources as salmon runs.

The change in stone tools from paleolithic to neolithic is attributed to the developement of agriculture. Is there some reason to doubt this idea?

If agriculture developed during the latest glacial & only spread above present sea level about 10000 years ago that might be consistent with the evidence, but why would it have remained below present sea level for any long time?

Tony said...

Re: Scott

You're making my point for me about a lack of cultural preparation in our society today. When I went to school, we were taught about changes in our own culture over time. It wasn't that long ago in our own culture that fathers were considered absolute rulers within their own households. They didn't have the legal authority to kill sons outright, but they could certainly apprentice them out, and the boy had nothing to say about it. Likewise with daughters -- they couldn't be killed, but they could be married, and it was the father's right to decide to whom. Or haven't you read Romeo and Juliet?

Staying with the star-crossed lovers for a moment, it was mentioned that Victorian society would have had a hard time with the pornographic nature of some Japanese wood block prints. This was the same Victorian culture that held Shakespeare to be a worthy influence on its youth, even though Romeo was a teenager statutorily raping (by Victorian standards) a twelve year old Juliet. And in America, at the same time, Walt Whitman was singing "the body electric", and receiving literary credit fo it.

Or maybe we could talk about a place Scott should be familiar with -- even if only by reputation -- Olongapo, in the Philippines. There, until about 20 years ago, a young American and a young Filipina could get together and communicate in the universal language of sex, no matter what other differences in values they may have had. And no, Scott, it wasn't all for sale. The best of it could still only be gotten for time spent and respect shown, another cultural universal.

Thucydides said...

Culture, like sex and politics, should never be discussed in polite company (or the Mess).

About the only thing the current debate about culture seems to have right (and I mean the broader debate, not just here on the blog) is it is very difficult to look outside your own culture, since all your values and assumptions are deeply embedded in the cultural background. The fact that there have only been a few "constants" that seem common or universal (murder, for example) would seem to indicate that there really is only a small base or seed from which culture springs.

On the other hand, we did have a sailing metaphor earlier, to which I will offer an amendment; a solid cultural background provides a keel to maintain your course.

Scott said...

On the other hand, we did have a sailing metaphor earlier, to which I will offer an amendment; a solid cultural background provides a keel to maintain your course.
Only if you can see how the flow of the waves are moving. Otherwise the ocean will smash you to flinders.

More specifically, if you can't see how your own culture influences your worldview, you will never see any other view as anything but wrong and therefore inferior.

Nevermind that the 'wrong' culture has been functional in that form for thousands of years (China, 5000; India, 2000; etc). Because it's not the same as my worldview, it's wrong.

If your background doesn't even allow you to ask 'how did they come to think this way?', you're going to be trapped.

You need a *personal* anchor or center, not the anchor of what others think of you.

Thucydides said...

The "Clash of civilizations" argument is not so much that different cultures are "wrong" or "inferior", but that their world views are so incompatible that it creates areas of friction.

The Chinese conceptions of the role of the family, the State, the Rule of Law and Property rights are quite different from those of the West. We still trade with the Chinese, but clash over human rights, intellectual property and so on. We do what we do because we value individual rights and achievement, they do what they do to maintain social harmony and cohesion. (This, by the way is the formulation of a friend of mine who is an old "China hand" and long time observer of their culture).

From a pragmatic veiwpoint, their way works, but would you really want to live under Chinese rule?

Milo said...

I'm tired of the myth that the Chinese way is equally valid as ours, and clashes can be chalked up to cultural relativity.

The Chinese don't like living under the current Chinese government either. Or don't you remember Tiananmen Square? The current Chinese government is an oppressive dictatorship, and people react to it the way people have reacted to oppressive dictatorships the world over - by marching in protest when they dare, and by griping quietly to their friends and learning to cope with (and occasionally cheat) the system when they don't.

Anonymous said...

Milo, I don't think that Thucydides was talking about the current Chinese government, but rather the Chinese culture; a seperate and much older social organism than the much more recent social construct of the current form of the Chinese government. The Chinese language, their cultural traditions, their shared attitudes about various issues, even the majority of opinions on mundane things are (as a whole), different than those of Americans, Germans, Brazilians, Japanese, or whathaveyou...Some peoples are shaped more, some less, by their current form of government, but their overall culture is composed by many different elements and form of government is only one part of it.

Ferrell

Tony said...

Scott:

"If your background doesn't even allow you to ask 'how did they come to think this way?', you're going to be trapped."

You know, just because your elders provide you with a cultural center, that doesn't mean they fit you for a set of blinders.

Thucydides said...

Governments are also a refection of culture.

Politics is defined as the means of allocating scarce resources, but different cultures have devised different means of doing so. Government and the State are fairly recent developments, but their forms and functions are defined by what the people in the geographic region in question have agreed as being "proper" in terms of their culture.

The TEA party movement in the United States is an example, since members of that group believe that the current growth of government is no longer following what is "proper" for middle class American culture (Read Samuel Huntington's book "Who are We?" and you can see the roots of American Culture being derived from English Protestant Dissenters and their views of the world; the Founding Fathers of the United States were obviously influenced by this movement {read the Federalist Papers, among others to trace the influence]).

The "established" culture of the United States is being challenged by several others, including the Statist culture of the Social Welfare State (developed over the years through the "New Deal", and "Great Society") and Hispanic culture being imported through the huge flood of peoples coming from Mexico, which is causing complex problems of adaptation and adjuctments.

Tony said...

Thucydides:

"The "established" culture of the United States is being challenged by several others, including...Hispanic culture being imported through the huge flood of peoples coming from Mexico..."

Not just Mexico. Central Americans are a large part of the inflow.

But the bigger thing that needs to be understood is that Latin culture is socially very conservative, which is causing cracks in the Democratic Party coalition.

Scott said...

"If your background doesn't even allow you to ask 'how did they come to think this way?', you're going to be trapped."
You know, just because your elders provide you with a cultural center, that doesn't mean they fit you for a set of blinders.

Funny, it seems a lot of people have been fitted with blinders. The Chinese as a whole literally can't wrap their mind around the way Americans think, for example, and vice versa. They aren't even trying to ask the question 'why', they're continuing to talk past each other.

Tony said...

Scott:

"Funny, it seems a lot of people have been fitted with blinders. The Chinese as a whole literally can't wrap their mind around the way Americans think, for example, and vice versa. They aren't even trying to ask the question 'why', they're continuing to talk past each other."

That's clearly not true. Chinese make competitive violins. The violin is an instrument whose music you must understand to make well. And Western music is one of those things you claim is foreign to Chinese sensibilities.

And I'm always being accused of arguing for the sake of argument...

Scott said...

I was actually referring to the extremely short-term view that most Americans have, compared to the multi-year goals that the Chinese set.


Interesting link, Tony, thanks. If I didn't already have two violins, I would be looking for a Chinese-made one. I just can't afford $30,000 for an Italian-made toy (toy because I don't play professionally). The Chinese have 'gotten' western music for a long time. I think it has something to do with the desire to keep the native music separate from the uses that western music gets. Also, the tonal languages seem to give a person a huge advantage in learning music to begin with.

Tony said...

Scott:

How does this:

"The Chinese as a whole literally can't wrap their mind around the way Americans think, for example, and vice versa."

Even remotely imply this:

"...the extremely short-term view that most Americans have, compared to the multi-year goals that the Chinese set."

???

A bit of friendly advice here -- say what you mean. We aren't mind readers.

Scott said...

Americans, by culture, seem incapable of planning for timescales longer than the next election (1-2 years) in government, or the next quarterly earnings report in business. I still haven't figured out where that happened in US history, but I'm looking.

The Chinese, by culture, don't plan much shorter than 5-10 years downrange, and build business and/or government relationships around that timeframe.

This leads to the Chinese saying things like: "We will no longer hold large quantities of dollars" (meaning that they're going to allow the exchange rate to change), while the US hears "we will no longer extend the US credit". Two completely different statements, caused by the differences between cultures.

Thucydides said...

Makes you wonder what sort of culture will develop in space colonies. I have argued that a free and free market culture will have the flexibility to adapt to unusual circumstances and prosper, while others have argued that a fairly rigid authoritarian culture will develop to ensure the safety of the colony, the infrastructure and all the people within.

Perhaps some hybrid culture like a US SOF unit will develop, where each individual must have a solid baseline of training and self discipline to back their exercise of initiative and freedom of action.

This might be difficult for outsiders to interpret, and it will certainly limit immigration. (Indeed, it might even limit the ability of the colony to grow, as people who cannot pass the phycological examination are forced to leave).

Scott said...

Given the hazards of idiots in space, *I* picture space culture to be somewhat like that of SOF or submarine crews:

A uniformly high level of competence, and anyone who does not pull their own weight *and* help others in the group (sorry, libertarians) gets voted off the island. This means a pretty strict hierarchy, but a culture that listens to the subject matter expert, no matter the SME's official rank.

Tony said...

The problem is that nobody with any kind of real prospects on Earth is going to want to live out his life away from Earth. But we can't populate our space settlements with highly idealistic losers. So the few competent idealists are going to wind up being the community organizers for the vast majority of the population that is temporary. They will probably be highly autocratic and invested with equally heavy authority to knock heads when necessary. They may even have to be backed up by a thug or two.

Rick said...

Those things don't seem to be a problem in Antarctica, or observatories on remote mountaintops, etc. Why would it be essentially different in space?

Here, as so often, there is a huge spillover from Romance. Would anyone even be speculating about space colonization if we had not all grown up on Heinlein et al?

Regarding one popular SF theme, colonies or habs of whatever group, libertarians, religious, etc., an interesting counterpoint is that there's no significant present day counterpart at sea, even though ships at sea are profoundly unsupervised.

Raymond said...

Rick:

"Regarding one popular SF theme, colonies or habs of whatever group, libertarians, religious, etc., an interesting counterpoint is that there's no significant present day counterpart at sea, even though ships at sea are profoundly unsupervised.""

The sea is still within range of special forces teams and/or cruise missiles. Puts a bit of a damper on bids for independence.

I am waiting for a more permanent undersea residence, though - it's a slightly less-common trope than space colonization, but potentially easier to pull off, and might have advantages for tapping geothermal power.

Tony said...

Re: Rick

As Raymond pointed out, the key factor is remoteness and rare opportunities for physical communication. Think more along the lines of a VOC trading establishment in the East Indies anytime before the middle of the 19th Century. Very few people went out for their whole lives, and those that did either had no prospects in the Netherlands or simply considered the VOC interests more importnat than his personal ones. That latter kind of person is the kind that would likely lead a space settlement.

Also, VOC stations were fairly autocratically run. Merchants, factors, clerks, soldiers, etc. were there to do a job for the company's investors at home, not find their greatest personal expressions. I don't see scientists and engineers out in space as being any different in purpose or need for government. They may be educated people, but, outside of their personal academic or professional passions, they're highly selfish and undisciplined, for the most part.

Jim Baerg said...

Re: the lack of sea going colonies.

Another reason is the same that has been brought up repeatedly about space colonies, the lack of an economic motivation. A sea colony or space colony needs either some way to provide all the necessities of life locally or an export that can pay for needed imports. Fishing might seem to be a possiblility, but most of the worlds good fishing is near land eg: the Grand Banks have Newfoundland to provide a place for fishermen to live.

If some variant of OTEC could be made as cheap per MW as hydroelectric (I doubt it) then we could have floating industrial centers in the equatorial Pacific refining aluminum, making ammonia fertilizer, & supporting fishing fleets because the water brought up is rich in nutrients.

Geoffrey S H said...

... with some undersea colonies eventually doing the same thing?

Thucydides said...

A sea colony, even a very successful economic foundry powered by OTEC, would attract the wrong kind of attention. It is in range of overwhelming force from established powers, which can be delivered via air and sea, and would have only a very limited ability to defend itself from anything more than an infestation of pirates (and might not even do well there).

Actually, the same arguments would apply to any space colony, since the technology which could launch colonists and their machinery would easily launch nuclear warheads or KKV's to any point in the Solar System the colonists can reach. Only after a very prolonged period of building and development would the colonies have the ability to fight back (they will be able to post arbitrarily large mirrors and antenna in orbit to detect incoming vehicles and objects).

The only way to ensure success for the colony as a whole is to ensure the success of the colony also equals success for the members. Many people who worked for the Hudson's Bay company essentially spent years in the high Arctic running or working in "factories" (trading posts) to accumulate enough wealth to retire comfortably at home. A large portion of the hypothetical colony workers will be slaving away at the McGuffinite mines in order to return to Earth as rich men and women, and actually have little long term attachment to the colony as a whole.

Incidentally, the idea that libertarians would not be pulling their weight runs counter to the very core of Libertarian philosophy; voluntary cooperation between consenting people. Libertarians (assuming you can find enough to build the colony) would be very willing to work together to achieve common goals like ensuring the ecology keeps running, they will be much less helpful when they are or feel they are being coerced to do something. Reality falls somewhere in the middle, of course.

Anonymous said...

Thucydides said:"A sea colony, even a very successful economic foundry powered by OTEC, would attract the wrong kind of attention. It is in range of overwhelming force from established powers, which can be delivered via air and sea, and would have only a very limited ability to defend itself from anything more than an infestation of pirates (and might not even do well there)."
But that assumes that the sea colony is totally independent and is not a possesion of a nation-state...and the same could be said about a space colony. The rest of your post I somewhat agree with; however, after a certain amount of time, those colonies would have developed a permanent population (people who decide not to leave, childeren born in the colony that can't or won't leave, people that cannot leave for health/economic reasons, etc).

Ferrell

Geoffrey S H said...

Remember: The 13 colonies were not founded principally on their defensibility. it was an important factor in later years, but a minor one in the beginning.

Thucydides said...

Even if a colony at sea or in space is the exclusive property of nation "x" or the corporation, it is still isolated from the parent and vulnerable to attack or exploitation from everything from criminal elements to enemy nations. Unless the plan calls for a carrier battle group or equivalent parked nearby, the owners might have to take losses into account when planning their venture.

The 13 colonies may not have been designed around defensibility, but every male member was expected to participate in the defense of the realm (sometimes as a legal obligation), and as a practical matter learned to do so if only to protect his own homestead. Given the opposition wasn't there in overwhelming strength (Indian tribes were divided against each other, and the French [the only nearby European competition] were spread very thinly over a much wider area than the English colonies.) this sufficed.

The situation is very different today, even small nations like Singapore can design and manufacture advanced weaponry and pirates with access to cheap infantry weapons and reliable communications are already wreaking havoc along the coast of Africa. Your local militia had better be trained and equipped to deal with this.

Anonymous said...

Jedidia: That seems like something out of the Anime "Ghost in the Shell"...while intertaining, I'm still not sure that I'd want the internet plugged directly into my brain! :0

Ferrell

Anonymous said...

Umm, Rick, this last post seems to have jumped to another thread rather than the one that it was meant for!

Ferrell

Anonymous said...

Ok, staying with the topic of this thread...besides scientific knowledge, what could outposts or colonies send back to Earth to make it worth while to build them in the first place? Rare Earth Elements? Exotic Exo-organic substances? Platinum Group Metals? Radioactives (uranium, thorium, etc)? ET? Really exotic filming locations? Maybe we Should build sea colonies, just to find out which one of these possibilities would pan out? (for ET, substitute undiscovered sea life).

Ferrell

Jim Baerg said...

Re: What substances would be more easily available off earth so they might be a McGuffinite for space colonies?

See the Goldschmidt Classification & this article on the Abundances of the chemical elements especially the two graphs of solar system & earth crustal abundances.

The lithophile elements including uranium & thorium tend be concentrated in the crust of the earth more than deeper layers, so they would be mined in space only for use there rather than export to earth.

OTOH the siderophile elements especially the platinum group elements get concentrated in the metallic iron cores of planets & some asteroids, so if any elements would be plausibly mined in space for use on earth it would be the siderophiles.

Some of the noble gasses especially helium3 might be extracted from lunar or asteroidal regolith (having got there from the solar wind) & be valuable enough to export to earth.

MAYBE something really valuable can only be made in zero gee &/or extremely high vacuum. The factories for those would be in cis-lunar space, but the raw materials would mostly be mined on the moon or asteroids rather than brought up from earth.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the links, Jim! Very helpful...I think that in any of my future stories, I'll have the 'prospectors' searching for micro-ETs, rather than REEs or PGMs; they'll be used on-site, while the hypothetical ETs are the 'Holy Grail' (these prospectors will be extremely annoying to the scientists and the support workers, and one of the many reasons the military is on-world)...But, again, thank-you for the links!

Ferrell

Jim Baerg said...

"micro-ETs"?

I'd keep platinum group metals as an export from the asteroid mines. They're one of the few plausible economic activities.

BTW a semi-plausible bit of McGuffinite used in an asteroid mining story was as element in the island of stability that was below platinum in the periodic table & so found in small but extractable amounts in metallic asteroids.

There is also the suggestion by Zubrin that Mars is the only place other than Earth in the solar system in which hydrothermal activity would have concentrated some elements into ore bodies. Unlike earth the best ore bodies on mars have not yet been found & mined so maybe a Mars colony could pay for imports with certain elements.

Jim Baerg said...

BTW if your ficton include some sort of FTL then your charactors can visit pulsar planets to mine the high concentrations of heavy elements there.

Anonymous said...

Jim, micro-ETs are microbes that have evolved on other worlds (at least in my writtings). While pulsar planets sound good for mining exotic metals, you would need some heavy duty rad-shielding! Again, thank-you for the info! Now all I have to do is figure out how to use microscopic black holes for star travel!

Ferrell

Jim Baerg said...

Yes the radiation levels near a pulsar would be a problem. Planets orbiting a neutron star that is an ex-pulsar would be better & more common. However, ex-pulsars would be harder to find.

From this:

"When a pulsar's spin period slows down sufficiently, the radio pulsar mechanism is believed to turn off (the so-called "death line"). This turn-off seems to take place after about 10-100 million years, which means of all the neutron stars in the 13.6 billion year age of the universe, around 99% no longer pulsate."

Anonymous said...

Hmmm...dead pulsars? That sounds like an interesting setting. Exploring any planets orbiting them would be an adventure and a half! Thanks for the info, Jim.

Ferrell

Rick said...

Planets orbiting dead pulsars do sound pretty cool!

Anonymous said...

http://fulleracton.narod2.ru/index.html
http://addisongregory.narod2.ru/index.html
http://ulysseslinus.narod2.ru/index.html
http://rafaelali.narod2.ru/index.html
http://avramseth.narod2.ru/index.html
http://tobiasabdul.narod2.ru/index.html
http://victormoses.narod2.ru/index.html
http://carterlionel.narod2.ru/index.html
http://jarrodbyron.narod2.ru/index.html
http://stewartgeorge.narod2.ru/index.html
http://chasezeus.narod2.ru/index.html
http://quinnmason.narod2.ru/index.html
http://jermainegregory.narod2.ru/index.html
http://thanebranden.narod2.ru/index.html
http://fitzgeraldfinn.narod2.ru/index.html
http://rayvernon.narod2.ru/index.html
http://fritzdieter.narod2.ru/index.html
http://clarkoscar.narod2.ru/index.html
http://caesarbevis.narod2.ru/index.html

Anonymous said...

You are not supposed to be searching for McGuffinite in space, you are supposed to be searching for unobtainium! Seriously. We will be going to space for unobtainium,in the form of rare earth metals that are becoming increasingly necessary for making things like cell phones, and increasingly valuable and hard to find on earth. Venus has lots of uneroded impact craters that are going to have lots of rare and valuable heavy metals at or near ground level, and we will go there when the numbers look right. I suspect that the miners will be leaving gold on the surface to use valuable ship space for lanthanum, neodymium, and other rare earths. Cloud colonies will follow along to support the miners, and eventually the ships built to move things between Earth orbit and Venus orbit will go to Mars, the asteroids, and to Jupiter (to mine Xenon as propellant for ion drives).

«Oldest ‹Older   201 – 274 of 274   Newer› Newest»