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Your Turn, Round 1-2: In Which Michael Designs Aliens

The role-playing scenario, called “The Farthest Star“, that I set on Chott follows a classic theme: the robinsonade or desert island story.  Rachel would call it another iteration of The Conversation That Never Dies, since it is centuries old.  Plainly spoken, a group of humans – be they the original Robinson Crusoe, a Swiss family, a bunch of primary school students, or some other ragtag bunch of misfits – are put somewhere isolated and have to survive.

This is a remarkably diverse premise.  That’s why the general theme is so popular.  Put humans from the present in the past and we have alternate history.  Put humans from Earth on another planet and we have science fiction.  Setting this on Chott gives a fun scenario for the players to play through, and a chance for me to show off my worldbuilding.  But I couldn’t just make the map.  I had to populate Chott with interesting things and characters for the players’ characters to encounter and deal with.  And now you all get to rip my designs for alien biologies and societies apart.

Sufficiently Advanced Aliens

I needed a way for present-day humans to get lifted from the Earth and dropped onto Chott.  To do that, I used a technology that was functionally indistinguishable from magic.  Like Greg Benford, I invoked the perhaps-not-entirely-impossible concept of negative mass,  where the gravitational and inertial masses are of opposite signs.   I defer to someone with more expertise in theoretical physics to tell me if negative mass is possible or if it violates one of the fundamental symmetries of the universe.

I also assumed negative and positive near-point masses under very sophisticated and intelligent control, be they somehow-stabilized specks of neutronium or black holes just big enough to not put off too much Hawking radiation.  Putting a negative point mass next to a positive point mass gives an engine: the positive mass is attracted to the negative one by gravity, but the negative mass is repelled.  Or the other way around, depending on which of the negative mass’ masses is negative.  Either way, the dipole then goes flying, and it can be loaded down with a payload of conventional positive-mass non-degenerate matter.  Conservation of energy has to hold, so I decided that the dipole sucks energy out of the local expansion of the universe – effectively, slightly pulling space closed behind it.  Momentum would be conserved by gravitational wave radiation.  This thing has a strange wake.

While the acceleration of the point masses and their payload can be also arbitrarily high, it can also be compensated so that the abducted humans are not turned into highly-compressed organic goo.  All of this was assumed so that characters from present-day Earth could be flown across most of a kiloparsec in a few subjective hours.  But who’s flying this strange starship?

I called them the Examiners.  They are never seen directly, interacting with the humans only by an AI avatar assigned the job of testing humanity by abducting a sample of several hundred and dropping them on Chott with a certain amount of equipment for a bit over a century, to be observed without any interaction until the end of the test.  What a galaxy-cluster-spanning billion-year-old sufficiently-advanced culture would learn by spending five and a half millennia  playing with six hundred apes was not specified.  Maybe it tells them something useful about properties of human culture that don’t vary over centuries.  Maybe the Examiners are just being cruel.  Maybe they operate on some inscrutable alien agenda.  Maybe the Examiners themselves are a million years dead and the humans are dealing only with the AI.

Either way, the Examiners exist as a way to set up the robinsonade.  Their emissary picks up the humans, explains the situation to them, gives them several hundred tons of custom-built equipment, and drops them into a playa on Chott, telling them to survive and thrive for the next 121 years.

The History Of Chott

Chott has been used by the Examiners for testing for the last few million years, for anyone who is able to breathe the air or/and drink water with some mixture of dissolved ions.  Humans are simply the most recent ones to arrive.  The planet is quite liberally dusted with ruins left behind by the previous testers, concentrated into the areas that the Examiners found most suitable for dropping them in.  It’s also dusted with microbes and some larger lifeforms from many different worlds, although those that are not Chott-native have a tendency to get out-competed and eventually die off.

In the last few tens of thousands of years, five tests have taken place in one particular longitude range in Chott’s southern temperate zone.  The humans encounter what the previous four groups left behind.  The ruins provide various resources for the humans to use, as well as information about the people who lived in them.  I had only called them T-1, T-2, T-3, and T-4, going back in time from the most recent to the least recent.  The players promptly named them treants, snakes, tetras, and hexes.  So I’ll use those names here.  Everything will be referenced to the time when the humans arrived at Chott, which is sometime in the 4700s CE on Earth.

Here’s a map of a section of the south temperate zone of Chott.   The humans arrived at the point labeled “Drop”, and rapidly surveyed this area using UAVs that the Examiners had provided to them.  T-1 marks the range of treants ruins; T-2 where the snakes are buried; T-3 and purple dots tetra sites, and T-4 marks the hexes.  Earlier testers on Chott were outside of this region.   Darker-colored regions are generally raised. The lower-right area is volcanic mountains; the upper-left is a rift valley. In between is the ocean and the lower, light-colored playas. The lakes in the playas are colored green but are a varying mixture of different colors due to all the different algae- and bacteria-like things growing in them.   MB: Thanks to Rachel for the picture as opposed to my pencil-sketch.

The Treants

The treants were tested about three thousand years ago (which means that the AI in charge of testing the humans didn’t know about the treants’ test before it picked up the humans, but was informed en route).  Like humans, they are a low-salt species and could not drink Chott groundwater.  They constructed a network of large solar-powered stills on the high ground around two adjacent playas to provide themselves with water, several of which the humans in both runs of The Farthest Star renovated to use themselves.  Unlike humans, the treants look like something from a cross between an elephant and an oak tree, with tentacles instead of arms and side-mounted protruding eyes.

The treants had somewhat different technologies than humans.  Not necessarily less advanced, but different.  Their chemical engineering was good.  They managed to power their vehicles using plant-derived hydrocarbons and built the roofs for the stills to last through over five thousand Chott storm seasons.  Their medical science was well-developed as well.  They were not used to Chott’s gravity; it was too high for them.  So infant treants had prosthetic legs to help support them, rather than immediately being able to walk.  But the treants did not have large-scale heavier-than-air flight, and so did not explore the entire planet.
The treants fought a brief civil war a few decades after their arrival, over disputed water and food rights.  It ended with a low body count, and did not appear prevent them from passing the test.  Or so says a book the treants made, printed on metal sheets and left in their library just before the Examiners returned to take them all home.

Snakes

7000 years ago, the snakes were dropped at the south end of the playa that would later host the humans.  They could have handled the salinity, but did something very foolish and set up a single initial camp underneath an unstable slope.  The entire group was buried under a landslide.  There were no survivors.  I confess that such an extreme failure of judgement seems unlikely.  I had it have happened to demonstrate to the players that failure was possible, and that I would let their characters die if they did something equally unadvised.

The snakes were only snakelike in their method of locomotion.  The rear halves of their bodies were elongated, flexible, and with a series of friction pads on the underside.  The front halves of the bodies were held upright, allowing appendages to more easily manipulate objects and for the eyes to give a better view of the surroundings.  If you squinted hard enough at the partial reconstruction of one of the bodies by the humans, it looked something like a rearing cobra.  Hence the name.

It did not come up much in the run-throughs of The Farthest Star, but some of the snakes’ equipment could have been salvaged and used by humans.  It included ceramic-shelled tents, crushed flat but with individual sheets of ceramic composite (based on alumina and corundum) that were still intact.  Had the humans started fighting one another, those would have been useful as improvised ballistic armor.

Tetras

The tetras were a hive mind intelligence, composed of specialized tetrahedral elements that joined to each other by clasps at the vertices that also conveyed the equivalent of nerve impulses.  Some were primarily structural members, some muscle, some sensors, some manipulators, some reproductive, some processing, and some data storage.  As confusing as it may be to think about, when they were networked, the processors automatically pooled into a distributed shared awareness that could break apart and recombine at will.

We can call the tetra units that the Examiners brought to Chott either “it” or “they”.  Either way, the tetras established a central base about 2000 km to the west-north-west of the human, treant, and snake centers.  Smaller subsidiary minds were sent out to explore; a plane carrying one of them crashed and was later partially excavated by the treants and then studied by the humans.

The tetras had no concept of reading or writing at the beginning of the test, although they did understand communication between separate minds by pressure waves and radio.  They did attempt to communicate with later testers by leaving individual memory elements at various hex ruins.  But after seventeen thousand years, their biological solid-state storage was completely decayed.  So the humans could not even attempt to understand what exactly tetras thought.

Hexes

The hexes were six legged and salt-loving.  And they were very good biologists as well as thorough explorers.  30,000 years ago, they explored the entire planet and studied the remains from tests as far back as 350,000 years ago.  They attempted to ensure that their ruins would be noticed by future testers and that those testers would know who they had been.
The hexes built three monolithic hexagonal-prism towers at a place the humans called Triangle.  They could be entered only from airlock doors on the roofs.  Solar-powered crystal radio beacons announced their presence to anyone with a receiver within a few hundred kilometers.  Inside were thousands of square meters of microprinted cave paintings, developing a common vocabulary and working up to give a description of the hexes’ history on their home planet (about 1800 lightyears from Chott and 4500 from Earth) and of everything they had done during their test.  From this, the humans got a crash course in xenobiology – hex and Chott – beyond what they had been able to figure out themselves.  Most of the plants and animals that the hexes had engineered had been taken with them or had died out and could only be identified by remains, but some were still alive on the surface of Chott.

The Rollers

One of the things the hexes engineered was a species of wheeled animals to hunt down and eat predatory Chott-native species.  The wheeled design was quite efficient on for moving on the playas, and a rocker-bogie arrangement allowed them to ascend fairly steep and rough terrain.  The wheels were biological stepper motors, with small muscles controlling samarium-cobalt magnets on the inside of each wheel.  Another set of magnets and the rims were separated from the hubs by something that could be called blood.

The hexes made the rollers intelligent enough to hunt in groups and to use the simplest of stone tools, to make them more efficient hunters.  Protoculture technique-sharing and vocalizations from deliberately grated wheels completed their initial skills.  Reproduction was parthenogenetic.   The hexes controlled the roller population in  two separate ways.    Chemical triggers shut down reproduction in rollers that spent too much time in the presence of too many other rollers.  And the samarium to make wheel magnets required a particular protein to be metabolized and formed into magnets, a protein that the rollers themselves could not produce.  That protein was synthesized by the hexes and provided only in a large mass in the center of one of the hex’s settlements.  The rollers would periodically return to the supply, or they would lose their ability to keep on rolling.

But then the hexes left, leaving the rollers nothing but the large monoliths and pile of the protein at Triangle.

Thirty thousand years passed.  The tetras did not notice the rollers, because its planes did not fly far enough east to enter the rollers’ range.  The treants did not walk that far either and the snakes had no chance to see anything.  The hexes had allowed a relatively high mutation rate and over the five to ten thousand generations between when the hexes left and the humans arrived, the rollers evolved.

Those that were smart enough to hunt effectively on their own – and later, to deliberately spend periods of time by themselves – had more offspring and rapidly dominated the population.  Language and technology both developed soon after.  By the time the first human aircraft buzzed overhead, the rollers had developed a culture roughly analogous to the human late-neolithic or early-bronze age (I was inspired to this idea by the webcomic Schlock Mercenary).  The analogy is limited, since the rollers use salvaged bits of metal from hex ruins for spear-points rather than smelting metal.

Roller culture is distributed, and has expanded to cover a much greater range as the rollers became better at navigation and caching food.  Small groups travel well over a thousand kilometers from Triangle in search of prey.  Social prestige and more offspring come from being a skilled enough hunter to bring down prey alone, usually using thrown spears, or from killing the largest prey in the smallest possible group.  Elders, slowed by age and by injuries up to and including loosing one wheel on each side, are valued for their experience and for the time they can spend caring for and teaching their grandchildren.  And every two chott years, all of the rollers – there are tens of thousands of them – convene at Triangle for a festival that has grown up around the necessity to eat mouthfuls of dirt-of-life.

But the rollers have a problem that they are not yet aware of.  In the beginning, there was a large mound of the dirt, half-buried in the center of Triangle.  Now there is a large pit, with the last few meters of dirt-of-life at the bottom.  If nothing is done, in another few thousand years, the rollers would go extinct.

And so we have plot for the human characters to deal with.

Your Turn, Round 1-1: Chott

This time, we’re going to do things somewhat differently.  I will describe a fictional planet that I created for a role-playing game scenario, which Rachel and a bunch of players on alternatehistory.com ran through on different occasions.  Then you get to point out anything and everything that I got wrong.

Despite my repeated poking at the economics and sociology of other works, here we’ll just start with the description of the planet and let you all tell me the right way to do planet formation, geophysics, geology, and meterology.  The people and cultures that have lived on it and the plot of the scenario can wait for another post.

Ready?  Here we go.

Chott

Chott is a planet with a mass of about 0.5 Earth masses, formed out of material with a similar ratio of carbon to oxygen.  A shortage of oxygen would have meant a mineralogy dominated by carbides or some other more exotic materials rather than oxides of silicon.  While such mineralogies likely occur on some exoplanets, our knowledge of the geophysics and geochemistry for such places is very limited, so I’ve left Chott with near-solar C:O and changed some other things instead.

Chott has somewhat less water and other volatiles per unit mass than Earth or Venus, although it has retained more than Mars.  There is enough water in the crust to keep plate tectonics operating roughly as it does on Earth, with differences in arc volcanism because there isn’t quite as much water-rich subducted ocean sediment.  Mid-ocean ridges do exist, but the rate of spreading is less because there is less geothermal heat to drive the convection.  The lower ocean depth exposes the ridges above the surface of the water, adding to already larger areas of land with relatively little vertical relief.  The rate of orogeny is slower than on Earth, so the balance between erosion and mountain-building is reached at much lower heights.

Climate

In part because of the insolation from its host star and in part because of the weaker greenhouse effect from a thinner atmosphere, Chott is colder than Earth.  The polar regions have permanent ice caps, and relatively little water evaporates from the oceans to be rained out on the land.  While there is some groundwater, most streams and lake beds are transient, with the lakes getting water during only part of the year and being salt pans the rest of the time.  This is where I got the name for the place, although I admit to using the word “chott” incorrectly – the rainfall is seasonal, but not necessarily concentrated in the winter.

Over geologic time, Chott’s oceans have become hypersaline relative to Earth.  The lakes are also hypersaline, and so is much of the groundwater.  Depending on the location, the water reservoirs can also be acidic or basic or have interesting concentrations of other ions, but almost everything moist on the planet is very salty.  The exceptions are clouds, rainwater, and areas where the soil has been washed free of salt.  The salinity does help keep the lakes and ocean at equatorial and mid-latitudes from freezing at night and during the winter.  Chott has ~30 degree obliquity with large long-term oscillations  and ~26 hour rotation, so nights can get quite cold.

Mid-morning in a dry lakebed on Chott.  The high ground on the horizon is about 20 km away.  There is still some surface water in the basin, feeding a multi-colored brew of microbes.  But that is 2 meters downhill and ~50 km behind you.  This was the first place the characters in the role-playing scenario encountered.

Basically, the nicest-to-humans areas of Chott are something like the Mojave.  Other areas are like the Atacama , with a bit more precipitation but lower temperatures.  At the poles, it gets cold enough to freeze out CO2, but there isn’t that much in the atmosphere.  As you can tell, I designed this place to be somewhere where humans could just barely survive without lots of sophisticated technology.

Biology

There is life on Chott, based on nucleic acids and proteins and using several different sources of energy.  There are sufficent oxygen-producing organisms that the atmosphere has enough oxygen for humans to breath (partial pressure ~0.2 bars), and enough consumers of CO2 that the partial pressure of that is not so high as to be toxic to humans, although there is still far more of it than on Earth.  But how did the Chott biosphere evolve?

Halophile microbes and larger organisms on Earth evolved into those environments, and almost all survive by expending lots of energy to keep their insides relatively free of salt as compared to their surroundings.  This is necessary because many normal (for life on Earth) proteins are not soluble in salt water.  Increase the salt concentration too much, and they come out of solution – salting out.  It has been far easier for Earth microbes to adapt cell membranes to keep out the high concentration of salt than it has been to use an entirely different set of proteins with a greater propensity to form hydrogen bonds with water molecules.

Life on Chott works differently.  The background of simple proteins accessible in whatever equivalent there was of primordial soup were ones that on Earth could have been too soluble for their jobs.  The structural materials used by early Chott microbes were solid/gels/membranes in salt-rich environments, but would dissolve or disintegrate in low-salinity places.

This causes an obvious problem for larger organisms outside of the oceans, lakes, and groundwater: they will dissolve in pure rainwater.  Combined with the high value of water on much of Chott’s surface, this means that the plants and animals on the land will all be armored with shells of things that don’t dissolve in pure water – be those proteins or non-polar hydrocarbons or some long-chain organic polymer.  For the plants, only areas above ground need to be armored, since water below the surface will have mixed with the soil and picked up enough salt to be usable.  At the risk of being insufficiently creative and of overselling convergent evolution, I designed a few Chott plants inspired by real succulents.

Chott plants.  The shape and surface texture were inspired by Euphorbia obsesa, but the color is different because Chott plants don’t use chlorophyll.

The need for protection against rainfall extends to the animals.  Some may be exoskeletal, others simply have thick hides.  Something like a thorny devil would work, since any means of collecting water is useful as long as that water can be combined with a little salt-rich dirt before being drunk (or as long as whatever equivalent the animal has of a stomach has a water-insoluble lining).
Both the animals and plants differ as much from place to place on Chott as on they do on Earth.  There is no such thing as a single-biome planet.  I have not detailed the entire biosphere, because that would mean generating a consistent ecosystem of hundreds of thousands of different species.  But I have considered various interesting local variations.
In areas with relatively high rainfall, the density of plants becomes high enough that there is an advantage to being taller than the plants around you.  That leads to things not entirely unlike trees.  One difference is what they use for support.  Woody plants on Earth use cellulose and lignin.  But tall Chott plants use salt crystals surrounded by organic membranes.  The areas that could be called forests are underlaid by large deposits of rock salts – both halite and salts other than NaCl.  Groundwater brings in some salt from areas uphill, and the insoluble membranes prevent the dead trunks from dissolving away too quickly.  These forests can’t grow up onto ridgelines, since there is no supply of salt there once the local soil has been depleted.

What Have I Missed?

So that is Chott, in terms of planetary science, geophysics, geology, meteorology, biochemistry, and biology.  What have I missed or gotten wrong?

Your Turn Round 1-2 will go into the history and cultures and economics of Chott.  And you all can thank Rachel for the pictures.

Superheroes Round 2: Daredevil

2012/11/17 4 comments

Matt Murdock, due to a childhood accident, is blinded by a bunch of hazardous chemicals.  But, they also give him awesome sonar superpowers.  Driven by his father’s death at the hands of the kingpin of the New York mob, as an adult Murdock fights injustice two ways: first, as a lawyer, working for the innocent and downtrodden, and second, as the fearsome Daredevil, going against those that the law won’t.

But of course, there are some issues with this…

The guy on the left, with the beard? He wants a cape. This movie does not go well for him.

How good is your hearing?

Daredevil navigates using sonar.  Most of what he does is passive sonar — that is, using sources of sound other than himself, and interpreting their reflections (echoes) to “see.”  Sometimes he does the active version, doing something like ringing a pipe to produce a useful sound, and listening for the echoes.  Real-world ships and submarines will use both flavors.  Though the military does use active sonar, passive in particular has military applications.  After all, that way, they can’t hear you looking at them.  There are also halfway approaches that may be used, such as a submarine being a quiet receiver and buoys providing the active “ping”.  Non-watery applications include seismology (and watching for people setting off nukes).

Regardless, the distance to an object is estimated by how long it takes the sound to get from its source, to the object, to you.  This becomes more challenging when there are multiple objects, with different reflectivities and sound speeds … and with background noise.  This would become very difficult to disentangle, even for someone with very good hearing.  There are some hand-held sonar devices for divers, but they’re active.  Since you’re only looking for your own “ping,” that makes the disentangling from other sounds easier.

Actual animals that use echolocation (bats and dolphins, for instance), use the active sonar variant for this reason.  This is actually pretty complicated, even as summarized by Wikipedia.  Suffice it to say, these animals have evolved specifically for the task — brain structures, ears, and methods of vocalization.  Real blind humans who use echolocation use exclusively active sonar, making clicks with the mouth, or tapping or clapping, and listening for the echoes.  Passive sonar using noises produced by other objects, the way most of Daredevil’s activity is portrayed, doesn’t really work.

Aside from distance, there’s also the question of determining the direction to the sound.  This is why seismology networks rely on more than just one or two sensors.  If you have four or more, you can use triangulation to determine the distance and direction to a sound.  A human comes equipped with only two receivers.  As a consequence, when you estimate the distance to the source of a sound, you get two distances, essentially giving you two spheres where the sound could be coming from, according to each ear alone.  Where you think the sound is coming from is the intersection of these two sphere… a circle.  This problem of not being able to find a sound’s exact origin is generally solved with additional information — knowledge of how the source is moving, or if you see a person talking.  Nonetheless, you’ve probably had the experience of thinking a noise from behind you was coming from somewhere other than the actual source.

Daredevil should have this problem, too, unless he’s grown extra ears somewhere.  This could be partially mitigated by moving around a bit, or turning his head, to effectively provide more “receiver” data points.  In the case of active sonar, if you send your “ping” mostly in one direction, that also helps with figuring out the direction.  Daredevil doesn’t appear to do the former, and, as stated earlier, only rarely uses the active form.

There’s a final issue with Daredevil’s hearing in general: it’s just too good.  The same problem shows up with Superman’s super-hearing.  In reality, at a large distance from, say, a woman getting shot, the noise is not only dampened by the familiar drop in volume with the square of distance.  Given damping from intervening objects and noise that is way, way louder than the signal, the interesting sound is effectively drowned out.

The main part of all this that is reasonable is the fact that Daredevil does actually get overwhelmed when there’s enough noise introduced by outside sources.  This includes explosions and standing right next to church bells being rung by one of the villains.  Speaking of whom…

Bullseye

Bullseye is the evil assassin who shows up and, oddly enough, tries to kill people.  What’s more odd is that he throws… anything.  He kills people with such things as playing cards and pencils.  (Like the pencil trick from The Dark Knight.  Except with throwing.)  And paperclips.

If Bullseye could throw things this hard…

Now, you can kill somebody with pretty much anything, so long as it’s going fast enough at a sensitive enough spot.  Of course, it can be kind of hard for a human to throw some things hard enough, like a playing card — air resistance will tend to slow it down and throw off your aim, even if you could throw it hard enough in the first place.  Pencils and so forth are similarly problematic.  They’re just not designed for killing people.  In fact, it seems pretty pointless to kill people with improvised weapons when Bullseye is clearly able to obtain more appropriate and effective implements (e.g., throwing stars) at other points in the story.

Then again, Bullseye is the dumb villain who wants a costume to show off how awesome he is relative to Daredevil, so maybe he’s not that bright.  Speaking of villainy…

Who’s the villain here, anyway?

This leads to a more worrisome issue.  Bullseye kills people.  Kingpin, the other big villain, orders other people killed, but isn’t afraid to get his own hands dirty.  Daredevil?  Also kills people.  Early in the film, he’s the defense lawyer for a women who’s been raped.  Due to corruption in the police department and string-pulling by Kingpin, the rapist gets off scot-free.  In costume, Daredevil goes after him.  In the process, he beats up a bunch of other people in a bar (who are surely not all guilty; one bartender clearly disapproves of the rapist), causes a lot of damage, and eventually kills the rapist in the subway.  By pushing him into the path of an oncoming train.

This puts Daredevil into the vicious anti-hero category at best.  It’s a little bit disturbing to realize that the guy you’re supposed to be rooting for is tearing up people who weren’t involved in the crime at all.  This is alluded to in the film, at a point where Daredevil tries to convince himself “I’m not the bad guy” after freaking out a kid by beating up somebody right in front of him.  It falls a bit flat, though, given how mean Daredevil is.  (Perhaps we should ask the same question about the faceless mooks many heroes can beat up without moral hazard, but we’ll leave that for another time.)

Crimefighting Ain’t What It’s Cracked Up To Be

One thing that Daredevil does illustrate well in the following scene is the bloody and bodily consequences of the superhero gig.  Daredevil is shown cleaning up afterwards, tired, sore, scarred, injured, and possibly addicted to opiate painkillers.  That’s what happens when the guys you beat up try to beat you back. It’s why boxers and football players (for example) often have lingering health issues after retirement.

Aside from the nonexistence of superpowers, such accumulated injuries, combined with the dim view most authorities (and people) would take of Daredevil’s vengeful style, is probably why we don’t have too many lone vigilantes.  What would Murdock’s doctors have done when they saw what had happened to his body?

Fantasy League Round 6: The Masquerade

We’ve talked about how many different fictional universes would be dramatically different if whatever characters or technology they have in them were to be publicly known in real life, with a particular focus on economics and sociology.  This obviously poses a problem for an author: how can you write a straight-forward detective story featuring a vampire detective when the readers will be focused on the incongruity of nobody using magic to make a million dollars?

If any of you are hiding super-natural powers, this is why you should confess. The Randi Foundation doesn’t actually keep a million USD in cash. They have something closer to 1.5 million accumulating interest in a third-party investment portfolio.

One way to do this is to establish a convention that while the world may look like the real world, that is just the outward appearance.  There is a Masquerade – an organized effort to hide the flying saucers / vampires / wizards / witches / parallel dimensions / alien space bats from the muggles.  But this has its own problems.

Why is there a Masquerade?

Why are characters with fantastic skills hiding from the world?  There have been many different in-story reasons for this, ranging from the all-too-realistic to the entirely absurd.

The reason many mutants have secret identities in the X-Men comics is all-too-realistic.  Society sets up the Masquerade, forcing the mutants to either hide their skills or be discriminated against for not being ‘normal’.  In real life, society has forced masquerades into existence for no good reason at allThis analogy is not lost on the Marvel comics staff.  But this form of masquerade only goes so far.  It only works as long as the population has some idea, however distorted and mistaken, of who they are forcing into hiding: the world has already been partially unmasqued.  In the Marvel comic universe, everyone knows that mutants exist, even if they don’t know who the mutants are.  Why would a group hide from the world so well that nobody believes or even knows to not believe that they exist?  And why would someone discovering something extraordinary not tell others about it?

Perhaps the default version is “but they wouldn’t believe me if I told them”.  That one might work for the first time Lucy Pevensie goes to Narnia, with the portal to the other world opening and closing at the whim of a not-particularly-kind deity.  But it’s absurd when the group with the supernatural skill can prove what they have.  We need another motivation for people to stay silent.

The term Masquerade as we’re using it here comes from Heinlein’s “Methuselah’s Children”, where it is used by the Howard Families, a small group of people selectively bred for longer lifespans, to refer to their hiding from the ephemerals around them.  There the motivation was to avoid attention and people trying to steal the secrets of their immortality.  In that story, the Masquerade is eventually broken and society is angry at the immortals, not believing that they were simply selected for long lifespans – although there is no good reason for that, since the Howards’ lives are well documented.  Here the Masquerade came from fear.  But if someone had been public about living longer in the past, then the Masquerade would not have been necessary.  So the fear was misplaced, and doesn’t work as a motivation.

In Harry Potter, we’re told the wizards hide because otherwise “people would want magical solutions to their problems”.  That’s not a good reason either.  People wanting magical solutions to their problems is a great opportunity to make a lot of money.  In order for the Masquerade to make sense, it has to be in the self-interest of the groups that are hiding to stay hidden.

Slayer with rockt launcher

This is why the vampires are hiding.  (Yes, the slayer is not tactically dressed.  But that doesn’t matter much when she has a rocket launcher).

In Buffy The Vampire SlayerVampire: The Masquerade and some other vampire settings, the Masquerade is justified by the various groups of vampires agreeing to hide from humans because otherwise we’d all gang up on them and kill them until they died from it.  That’s a pretty good reason, and it’s enforced in Vampire by a group of vampire enforcers taking down anyone who does try to go public and in Buffy by stakes, scythes, and rocket launchers.  A similar reason is invoked in The Dresden Files.  And in Mage: The Ascension, there are non-sympathetic Men In Black hunting down anyone who is doing unsanctioned magic.

But even these self-interested Masquerades tend not to work out, because while it may be in the interest of the group to remain unknown to the world, there is always a million-dollar incentive for each individual to be the one who goes public.  We’ll come back to this at the end, after we show that even the best-maintained Masquerade couldn’t survive anyway.

How is there a Masquerade?

How do you prevent Muggles from walking into Hogwarts?  Sure, it may be impossible to label on a map and loaded up with nothing-to-see-here, but why doesn’t it and all the other wizard enclaves show up on airplane and satellite imagery?  A Wizard Did It only works so well.  If high concentrations of unspecified “magical energy” fry electronics, then people will notice the bizarre dead spot on the train platform where their cell phones suddenly crash and start tapping on the wall.  Dragons flying around will set off air-traffic control radar, to say nothing of people’s reaction to a flying car.  Actually, Harry Potter’s masquerade has more holes than the Menger sponge.  It’s as bad as how almost everybody misses that Superman is obviously Clark Kent and Batman is almost as obviously Bruce Wayne.  Let’s try something else.

In The Dresden Files, the masquerade is maintained by the “Unseelie Accords”, a set of agreements between various magical groups to not reveal their presence to the world.  The different groups all hate each others’ guts, but aren’t willing to risk total destruction by angry normals (or by vampires or faerie who are angry at being revealed).  This is an okay setup, but somehow it survives vampire bodies showing up in a Chicago morgue, a wizard fighting horror-movie monsters in a hotel convention center, and a horde of zombies being hunted through a city by a resurrected T. Rex.  That’s bad enough.  Then Jim Butcher turns it up to eleven.

Harry Dresden (listed in the Chicago yellow pages as “wizard”) and a group of his friends are fighting an army of vampires at Chichen Itza.  Near the beginning of the fight, Dresden briefly negates gravity over a large area and focuses the force into a very small area, smashing a field of vampires into the ground.  It produces a minor earthquake.  Cool story, isn’t it?  The problem for the Masquerade is that there are several different global seismic monitoring networks specifically looking for small near-surface earthquakes emanating from point sources well away from established faults – because that’s what a nuclear detonation looks like.  Everyone with a seismometer now thinks that a nuke went off in the Yucatan.

From there, the Masquerade would fail quickly.  30 minutes or less will put blurry spy-satellite imagery of Dresden’s team fighting vampires on a large number of computer monitors.  If I read the US-Mexico airspace and joint defense agreements and approximate aircraft base positions correctly, within an hour there would be high-speed jets from US Air Force bases along the Gulf over Chichen Itza doing close recon, closely followed by Mexican aircraft and probably some curious private planes and helicopters from Cancun.  And then neither the vampires nor the wizards could hide from the world, even if they all teleported away immediately.  The Masquerade may have been set up by the Wizard Who Did It, but Muggles Do It Better.

Why Isn’t The Masquerade Brought Down?

If Masquerades are so easily broken and there are such large rewards for being a whistleblower, how can a Masquerade last in a story for any length of time?  This one is actually easy to answer: if the Masquerade fails, the story changes too much and the author(s) can’t write a sequel.

There may be in-story reasons why nobody has brought down the Masquerade, especially if there is an organization dedicated to maintaining it.  If showing the world that aliens exist will summon the MIB and lead to you and everybody else in the world being immediately mind-wiped then perhaps fame and wealth isn’t as much of an incentive.  But where is the supernatural equivalent of Wikileaks or radical open-source?  And if there isn’t a penalty for going public, the Masquerade doesn’t make any sense at all.

Even if there is a penalty for going public, you just need to do so untraceably.  Gather compelling evidence of whatever The Masquerade is hiding.  Use dummy email accounts and free wifi to get copies of it printed and mailed to hundreds of different groups at once.  University science departments may be deluged with crackpot manuscripts, but most get looked at for a few minutes, so you have a chance of being taken seriously.  Once again, Wikileaks is the model.  For physical evidence, shuffle it through mail forwarding services a couple of times and not even you will know exactly where it has been before it gets where it needs to go.  A few pebbles from Narnia would be enough for the geochemists; a dragon egg makes the biologists go wild;  vampire skulls sent to an anthropologist shows that they exist.

How to prove you were in Narnia / Ferryth / any other non-Earth world: bring back a pocketful of pebbles (Chassigny meteorite fragment, originally from Mars, with a 1 cm cube for scale).

Granted, it’s not quite that simple.  It would be a huge leap from “you found a place with isotope ratios that don’t match anything in the solar system” to “you were in a land of talking animals ruled over by C.S. Lewis’ version of Jesus personified as a lion”.  And “there are humanoids with large retractable canines and strange bones that disintegrate in sunlight” isn’t the same as “we need to find the vampire leaders and convince them that they and their followers should drink pig’s blood rather than human”.  But as soon as the basic supernatural element of whatever Masquerade you are bringing down is illustrated, everyone would be willing to listen and to invest considerable effort in what you say.

So it is very hard to have a convincing Masquerade in a story.  I suppose you could specify some sort of universal law that the Masquerade cannot be broken, but that would be an arbitrary law enforced by a trickster god.  It’s probably best to simply go with authorial fiat and acknowledge the inconsistency.

SciFi Round Eight: Zombie Apocalypse

2012/11/06 1 comment
Don't worry.  Zombies aren't that bad - unless they are zombie cows.

Don’t worry. Zombies aren’t that bad – unless they are zombie cows.

You know it’s coming.  You’ve got your shotgun, your food and water, and useful barricades for blocking doors and windows.  But, the numerous fictional portrayals aside, what would really happen in the event of a zombie outbreak?  Or perhaps we should ask instead: what couldn’t happen?

They just keep going and going and going…

Zombies should not be the Energizer Bunny, any more than humans are.

The most obvious limitation is that the zombies are decaying.  Wait long enough, and they’ll presumably stop moving.  There’s a reason normal humans shut down after they’ve taken that degree of trauma.  If the spinal cord has been significantly damaged, the zombie can’t be walking anywhere.  Even if the nerves are structurally intact, inadequate blood flow will lead to nerve damage very quickly: within 5 minutes for the central nervous system, maybe 20 minutes for the spinal cord, digestive organs, and muscles.  Since the trauma that turns someone into a zombie is usually accompanied by lots of blood loss, how are their tissues getting oxygen and why aren’t they permanently down within tens of minutes?

If we grant that the zombie is structurally sound and getting enough oxygen that it doesn’t immediately go into an ischemic cascade, there are still problems.  Consider energy.  If a zombie doesn’t eat, how far can it go?

There is enough ATP in normal human muscles for a few hundred meters of walking.  So clearly the zombies still have ATP synthesis going, or they’d be notably non-threatening.  If we assume glycolysis but no way to replenish sugars, after thirty or forty kilometers the zombie will drop – hitting the wall like any endurance athlete.  If zombies have massively up-regulated fat metabolism, they can go a couple of hundred kilometers before they run out of body fat to burn into motion.  This would be a convenient way to explain why the zombies would like high-fat foods like brraaiinnss, but as we’ll see that distance limit makes zombies relatively easy to contain.
If the zombies can eat each other and/or humans, then they can go further.  But absent an external food supply, the population of zombies will exponentially decay with distance (the math is the same as the rocket equation), with an e-folding distance of ~200 km.  That means that any initial population of zombies will die off quickly.  Shambling around twenty-four hours a day looking for brains is energy-intensive.  At normal walking speed, the population of zombies will die off with a timescale of a couple of days.

All of this assumes that the zombies are limited by their food supply.  Omnivorous zombies or zombie cows are much more dangerous – there are far more grains than brains.  But the normal human-eating zombie is pretty easy to contain, because the infection dies off so quickly.  All you need to do is give the zombies something to chase until they drop dead (or un-undead, or more dead, or whatever).  It’s persistence hunting in reverse: in the zombie apocalypse, you survive by having the zombies chase you.

In the interests of not losing the zombies when you run far enough ahead of them to have a snack and refill your water bottles, it’s probably best to start with a car with a full tank of gas.  Have a couple of your friends serve as rear-guard to make sure the zombies don’t get too close, and drive in a big loop around the infected area, pied-pipering the zombies to their doom.  With 600 km of driving, almost all of the zombies trailing you will be dead.  Just 5% will survive if they can eat each other and run at the same time.  You don’t need to do anything silly like armor the car.  A zombie limited to normal human strength can’t break the windows, and the extra weight would cut into the gas mileage.

Speed and Transmission

Slow zombies.  Why do these work at all?  In that case, it’s not even a matter of outrunning your friends.  These zombies are so slow, it just doesn’t make sense that they’ve been able to infect anybody beyond the initial carriers without something else going on.

Which brings up the problem of the transmission of the zombification.  The zombies, regardless of speed, want to eat your brains.  And in most cases, a zombie without a head isn’t going anywhere.  So, assuming transmission via bites or other bodily fluids, the only people who get turned into zombies and not just eaten will be those slow and unlucky enough to get bitten or scratched, but fast enough to get away afterwards.  This is a big limit on infection.  In order for the outbreak to spread, each zombie has to bite far more people than the one-per-two-days limit from the energy content of their muscles and also avoid getting eaten by fellow zombies.

The Resident Evil series gets around all of this by having the virus become airborne or blood-borne depending on the situation.  But then all of the characters that are fighting the zombies should have been infected as soon as they got into the same room as one.  And of course those zombies are far too fast and too long-lived to be consistent.

Magic Zombies

You can avoid a lot of these issues by ignoring physics by means of magic.  Dungeons & Dragons includes zombies, of course, generally under the control of some sort of evil necromancer.  More necromancy shows up in Dead Beat, a book in the Dresden Files, where the zombies require an ongoing rhythm, metaphysically replacing their heartbeats, in order to keep moving.  Either way, physics is not the limitation.

That said, the usual issues with zombies still apply — just stabbing one won’t stop it, though head shots probably work better.  On the plus side, they’re generally not contagious.

Preferred solution for D&D?  Bring a cleric.

For Dead Beat?  Bigger zombie.  No, really.  We’re talking getting your undead pet T-Rex to munch the evil zombies for you.

Harry Dresden with Sue, zombie T-rex. She hasn’t eaten in 66 million years.  Do not pay attention to how her head is twice the length of an actual T. rex skull.  Just get out of her way.

Apocalypse Prevention

Of course, with the zombie apocalypse, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  You know it’s a nasty virus?  Fine.  Treat it like ebola and stash it in a biosafety level 4 lab.  Biohazard suits with positive air pressure (to avoid contamination even if there is an accidental puncture) are mandatory, along with multiple airlocks and serious decontamination of anything from inside.  And all of the air vents run through micropore filters and then directly into furnaces, to burn up anything airborne that escapes (there goes Resident Evil).  Similarly, if you’re testing some experimental new retrovirus on humans or animals… keep them in a nice, safe quarantine, long enough to check for weird side effects.  And really, test the animals first.

So the zombie apocalypse is really quite ineffective as apocalypses go.  So we’ll end this with a few funny things.

Here’s a take on the corporate zombie by Jonathan Coulton.

And, regardless of your political affiliation, we present what should be an entertaining “endorsement” by Joss Whedon.

Both of us wrote this one – RMR & MWB.