Tales From the Midnight Campfire

. . .

“Long ago, when the world was younger, there was a great king who ruled a vast kingdom. His daughter, a princess, was renowned for her beauty. Yet none dared to court her, for though she longed for a husband, she was quick to judge and loath to forgive.

Finally, two brothers came to the castle—and like those before, the princess rejected them. Yet as they turned to leave, she hailed them. That they would not go away empty-handed, the princess told the men that each had but to rest his eyes upon a thing, and it would become theirs.

The elder brother, who was crafty, quickly set his eyes upon the princess, but she shook her head sadly, for in her offer she excepted herself alone. In disappointment, he climbed the highest minaret in the castle and set his eyes to the horizon. And so the duchy became his to rule.

The younger brother closed his eyes in thought. Then, wandering through the castle, he came to the great doors, flooded through by setting sun. He opened his eyes to the crimson sky, and the princess, who followed his gaze, smiled.

‘My foolish brother,’ said the elder, ‘you could have had an empire!’

‘True,’ said the younger, as the world faded into darkness, ‘But I have the stars.’

And so, the younger brother departed the castle with empty hands. Yet, in his heart, there was eternal joy.”

sky


Ed. note: the artwork in this post was created by my new friend, painting under the pseudonym “Dizzy Chen”. It is my hope that her artwork and my stories will continue to compliment each other for many posts into the future.

Homo sapiens sapiens

Nothing to do with corn.

“Ladies, Lords.

Today, with the advent of cheaply available nanomutagens, we are seeing an explosion in human genetic alteration ranging from pre-natal to geriatric—and from targeted risk factor reduction to wholesale alteration of secondary sexual characteristics. The government does not possess any agency for regulating such operations, and the recent passage of court bill 2301AP-8903 legally binds it to inaction. I believe this is a failure on the part of this committee, inasmuch as we are obligated to also advise policy.

The problem is that legalization of all such genetic engineering doesn’t merely pass the burden of inevitable failures onto the expectant parents or individual requesting the treatment (as the legislature appears to have concluded); it also creates a sociogenetic debt.

True, we have overseen the almost complete eradication of the more common genetically linked susceptibilities—as well as single-gene genetic disorders proper, such as CF and TS in the last decade alone. In the case of the former, we can all agree that eliminating the most common ΔF508 mutation was a triumph of science and humanity.

But what about myopia? If present trends continue, genes for imperfect eyesight will be ruthlessly bred out until no human wears eyeglasses. Gone will be the bespectacled academic, the horn-rimmed librarian, the bookish teen. This correction of a genetic fault will thereby alter our culture.

People have preferences for hair, eye color, and so on. So far, diversity has been preserved only by the presence of differing racial and societal expectations of attractiveness. But already we see evidence of women crippled by their parents’ absurdly idealized notions of beauty, especially body weight, and men too Hellenistically sculpted to fit into standard space suits. We’re at an inflection point where an entire generation could be born blond if some hypothetical singer with sandy hair became sufficiently popular.”

SPEAKER HER LADYSHIP SUSANNA CHRISTINE ATTWATER
ARGUMENTATION IN SIG GENIC OVERSIGHT
TS [2301-05-22 13:28, 2301-05-22 13:33]
APPROVED FOR RELEASE WITH EDITS 2301-07-09 DEPT REF 009

Xenoarchaeology

Some things are more important than gold statues, Indy.

Forerunner galactic civilizations are a staple of xenoarchaeologic research grants, yet their underpinning, background ubiquity seldom enlighten those who study them. Currently, no fewer than eleven separate forerunner civilizations are known to have colonized the Milky Way to various degrees, the earliest surviving artifacts of which date back some eight billions of years.

It seems that some natural cycle of rise and recession alternately unites alien races and then isolates them, creating a chronology of forerunner civilizations—of which ours is merely the latest. There is no reason to believe our present civilization is privileged, and yet no one is quite sure why no iteration has ever really caught on permanently.

Some of the very longest-lived species have surviving legends that possibly implicate membership in the previous civilization—which decayed some tens of millions of years ago—but on such timescales of millions and billions of years, it is more common for member races to die out entirely.

Surviving artifacts are common, but often maddeningly uninformative. Almost no devices survive the ravages of time intact, save only those few that self-repair. (The most famous examples are the ring devices—featureless wheels whose only interesting property is making investigating vessels disappear. For 30,000 years, nothing more about them has been discovered.)

It seems that, just as galactic-scale government is not fit for cosmic longevity, nor are any individual species, let alone their technologies.

Reorientation

Who would you like to be?®

“Welcome back!”

“The hell?”

“Tsk. Language, Mr. Carter. I presume you can show yourself out. Have a safe trip.”

“Where the hell am I?”

“Oh my. One moment, please.” [pause] “50 simyears??? By the stars, you must be wealthy!”

“What’s going on?”

[sighs] “. . . you’d better come with me, Mr. Carter.”


[soon]

“Your real name is Doug Carter. Your last (perceived) 50 years have been wholly simulated by our software, interacting with other customers as compatibility allows. It is unusual for customers to request more than a simulated week or so, but it seems you bought a whole lifetime.”

[shows signed contract with company logo]

“You’re about 24 real years older, because we use a 2:1 time scale with some scheduled maintenance. But for long-term clients, we use longevity boosters, so you’re only about 6 years older biologically. We block prior memories so that your simulated experience feels real (and for the safety of other participants), but customers usually regain their prior memories shortly after return.”

“Jeanette . . .”

“Hmm? Oh, that’s a name. Unusual. Oh, hmm, I see. It appears you had a child in simspace. That feature’s technically still in beta. How was the conception? Any tips for our dev team?”

“My daughter!”

“Oh, ah. Mr. Carter, so, your daughter doesn’t exist in reality. If you like, I can copy all her logs for you. You own all her IP. Her mother is sim too, so the same there.”

“But . . . !!!”

“Mr. Carter . . .”

“. . . how much for another fifty years?”

[representative smiles]

Cosmology

If you could see the notes they’re taking . . .

As time increases without bound, the probability of
existing within a simulated reality approaches unity.


There are exactly two possibilities: either we exist in a simulated reality, or we do not. If we’re simulated, this almost certainly evidences a creating group of entities in the enclosing universe with a reason for doing it.

At this point, you can speculate on motive. For example, maybe they’re doing a simulation: a group of cosmological grad students. (The idea of a “god” in the classic sense seems cretinous; what depraved being would build a toy universe and then have trite interactions inside of it for eternity?) But these lines of inquiry become dull rather quickly.

More interesting is to speculate on the existence of the parent universe itself. By applying the same logic recursively, we find that they’re probably simulated too. So you have us, inside a parent universe, inside a parent universe, inside, inside, and so on until you reach some root universe. It will always reach a root universe in a finite number of nested universes. (Why? Because by assumption, the probability of existing in a simulated reality only approaches unity. And even if we were to know we’re in a simulated universe, you toss the problem to the next one up, and so on until an assumption breaks. Anyway, you can’t have turtles all the way up.)

For example, let’s say that we think the probability of existing in a simulated reality is ps=0.93. Assuming this is constant for each universe (each universe likes simulating universes approximately the same as itself), we’d expect on average to be the 14th or 15th universe down. If it’s ps=0.5, on average we’re the first universe down.


What’s fascinating is that this implicitly involves a problem: we can’t define time very well. If you observe a universe right at the big bang and then live through until its end, your ps grows monotonically from 0 to 1 but the truth remains constant. What the original conceit really is saying is about time in the root universe. That, as time progresses, the number of recursively simulated beings collectively grows faster than the number of real-lifes. It’s a hyperexponential growth, too, since each simulated reality makes its own recursively simulated universes too.

This suggests something interesting: we can devise an a-priori experiment to see whether we’re in a simulated reality. See, this hyperexponential growth starts exactly when the root universe starts simulating things. The population growth in the root universe continues at an ordinary exponential rate, so the simulated universes very quickly outpopulate the real one.

This means that after the root universe develops universe simulation, your chances of being born in the real world drop abruptly, asymptotically, to zero.

In the absence of better data, we assume that any parent universes are like ours, since people are interested in creating applicable simulations. So:

  1. If we are simulating our own universes, then probably we are the child of a parent universe that is also simulating universes (one of which is us).
  2. If we’re not simulating universes, then we don’t have a parent universe, because that parent universe wouldn’t be simulating us either. So we wouldn’t exist (and yet clearly we do).

The intriguing thing is that the simpletons who authorize science funding get the implication backwards, reasoning that if we don’t invent universe simulation, then we’ll be living in real life (as if such post-hoc decisions could influence the very nature of reality). If this carries back up to the root universe, then no child universes will ever exist (which makes the fallacious chain of reasoning even more appealing).


Ed. note: this isn’t actually strictly fiction.

Colonists

We’re a little short on crew.

The first “live” interstellar colonists to arrive successfully on an exoplanet in a nearby system were a group of six malnourished Vietnamese women. (A seventh died in hibernation, as had been statistically predicted.)

Between Sol’s planets, economies of scale and orbital infrastructure allow minor differences in weight to be tolerable. Tickets are still based on mass, as-measured by the travel agency on launch day to the nearest gram, so women and children are cheap. But even if you’re obese, you can still pay your way.

But when you’re talking about interstellar distances, every extra gram you accelerate to and back again requires energy comparable to the annihilation of a weapons-grade quantity of antimatter. That energy has to come from somewhere.

So, because men’s contribution can be saved and women’s can’t, the colonists were all women. The large diversity of the former could also cut down on the number of women required. But a bit of careful selection and reduction of key nutrients in her diet cut down the average woman’s mass by 15kg each. When you factor in the commensurate reduction in life support, their ship spent only 248 years in transit—fast enough to arrive by 2599-11-3, just under two months before the UFP’s deadline.

In Case of EMP . . .

Nostalgia costs mass.

The sign read: “IN CASE OF ELECTRICAL FAILURE BREAK GLASS”.

Johnson broke the glass.

“The hell is this?”

“It’s a slide rule. And it’s going to save our asses.”

“Lotta fancy numbers. What’s it do?”

“It multiplies, divides, square roots, all the usual things ‘cept addition. This one does trig and exponents too. It’s more precise than your brain, but less so than a computer. That EMP means we don’t have a computer, though. Both backups are dead too.”

“Well, we had no way of knowing that that particular CME would hit us way out here at Jupiter. The chances of that must be pretty absurd.”

“Not really. Happens all the time. But our electrical shielding clearly wasn’t up to par, and this was a particularly big one. Right now, we’re dead fish in a very big sea. See if the emergency sparkgap is working. Tell Ganymede we’re scrubbing the mission—and we’ll use this thing to figure out how to burn for home.”


Ed. note: Idea from Atomic Rockets. I myself restored a K&E for work, and have another at home. They’re useful for one-off calculations that would be too slow to do in my head and too unimportant to boot a shell.

Physical Exam

Your A+ is an F-

“Did I pass, doc?”

“You’ll be pleased to know, you’re in perfect health.”

“Sweet! I’ma be an astronaut!”

“Well . . . no.”

“!!! . . . Why not? You said I’m in perfect health!”

“You have type A-positive blood. Astronauts are required to have type O-positive.”

“That seems arbitrary.”

“No; it’s necessary. If someone got hurt, you couldn’t be a blood donor. The body of any O-type person would reject it. O-positive is the largest blood group type, so we picked that. Sorry.”

In Port

That’s a stiff one.

“Buy you a drink?”

“No.”

“Ma’am, I’m trying to be considerate. It’s about your ship.”

“The Willow? What?”

“Thought so. Eh bartender!—A double algae on the rocks for the lady here.”

“What are you doing?”

“I think something bad is going to happen to the Willow. Just some talk I heard around the docks. Something about a defective neutron moderator.”

“Are you threatening me?”

“No. I’m offering a deal. I know these guys. Hold some sway. Might be able to convince—”

[leaving] “Disgusting. Keep your drink.”


Ed. note: we last saw Beth here.

Material Science

A song, broken by tears.

“What is it, my dear? What’s wrong?”

“I . . . I broke it, mommy!”

“Well, what did you break?”

[looks up with sorrowful eyes]

“You don’t mean . . .”

“It was dirty! I tried to wash it and—”

“Show me!”

The violin lay on the bed in a crumpled, twisted heap. Traditional violin bonding is water-soluble, and modern strings put nearly 50 pounds of pressure . . .

“I’m sorry!”

[examining] “Ugh, and the wood is all warped too. You should have called me sooner!”

“I’m sorry!”

[sighs] “Well, there’s no way to fix this at all. The wood is cracked and the water warped it more. Even if it weren’t, there isn’t a luthier within half a light-hour.”

“. . .”

“It’s okay sweetie. You couldn’t have known. You’ve never seen wood before.”


IMG_2176.jpg

Artwork by Dizzy Chen.