Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Back from SOPA/PIPA protest mode

Those of you who went to the website yesterday may have noticed it was down in protest of SOPA/PIPA. It's back now. The news about those two idiotic bills seems promising. -JRS

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

On Technology

It's tempting to believe that, while technology has changed drastically, if the Victorians (for example) had had material x and technological skill y, they could have built aircraft, spacecraft, and so forth and so on. The more I dig into it, and the more I watch the present world change, the more I think that however fun this is to play with in steampunk, it's not really quite true.

Consider this: Between 1988, when I was engaged in learning computer science, and today when I am completely out of the field, one particular problem went from taking 82 years to solve to less than a minute, an improvement by a factor of 43 million. Now processors got 1000 times faster in that time, but the algorithm got 43,000 times faster as well. See this link.. Likewise, while the initial insights of chaos mathematics date to the late 19th century, as a science it was not given serious study until the middle of the 20th century. (I don't pretend to understand chaos mathematics, but they seem to be proving useful in a great many areas, such as climate change.)

We don't tend to think of mathematics and algorithms as technology, but they very much are, as much as the technology we can put our hands on. And they march on the same way.

So stealth fighters, for example, depend on high tech materials, but those materials were designed based on computer modeling, in turn based on Pyotr Ufimtsev's 1962 book "Method of Edge Waves in the Physical Theory of Diffraction" In fact, the reason the F117 stealth fighter is made up of flat planes is that the software used for the modeling couldn't model complex curves. The stealth Bomber (B2), and the F22 Raptor were built with more modern software that could. It's interesting to speculate what might have happened if you'd sent an F117 back in time to, say, the Nazis. While having the artifact in hand and knowing it works would have given them a huge jump on knowing what the goal was, one must ask, did they have the math to understand it, and would they need it to recreate it?

This matters in Steampunk fiction because Steampunk is all about asserting things existing before their time. As an example, I'm handwaving fusion for power, because fusion can power steam, and thus fits very comfortably into the Victorian technosphere. I further assert (though rest assured, only in my notes thus far) that the fusion system they use, they don't really understand how it works or what neutron radiation really is, or any of those things. They developed it Edison-light-bulb style - throw ideas at it and see which ones stick. It worked for Edison in the lightbulb, and I assert that it worked for him - and others - with fusion once they knew it could be done. It helped them that they also captured the factories to make these fusion plants. (It also makes me giggle to power the whole story with what amounts to Pons-Fleischmann cold fusion.)

At its heart, Steampunk is a fantasy genre. It's things that never actually happened, mixed with some things that could have happened but did not (Babbage engines) combined with anachronisms and some flat out magic.

At least, that's my take this week. :)


Friday, January 6, 2012


A million 1895 dollars worth of silver weighs about 9 (US) tons, and would amount to about 260 1000(troy) ounce bars. As a solid volume it would take up about 27.5 cubic feet, a cubic block a little more than 3 feet on each side *edit* Someone missed a free book. The numbers I had in here originally sounded fishy so I re-ran them (also with better figures for the price of silver in 1895 and the relative value of the dollar). No book was given, though, so the offer stands. If anyone finds problems with /these/ numbers, the first one to send me corrected ones gets a free copy of Drumlin Circus/On Gossamer Wings or whichever other of my books you don't already have, signed by me (and Jeff if it's DC/OGW.) -JRS

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