Fiction

Sapiens Plurum contest entry

This was my entry into the 2019 Sapiens Plurum short story contest. In news which will shock precisely nobody, as this was my first attempt at writing a short story for a contest, not only did it totally fail to win, it didn’t even get an honourable mention.

“‘Save the world’, dad said”

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history, Politics

History, according to the British

If you’ve ever wondered why the UK acts the way it does, consider that my formal history lessons at school went like this:

  • Boudica had a perfectly justified but ultimately futile fight with the Romans
  • Saxons exist
  • “William the Conqueror” came, saw, and conquered liberated and/or unified the country
  • “The” Manga Carta
  • Civil war War of the Roses
  • Henry VIII
  • Civil war Catholics or Protestants argue about which one is sent from God and which is the unholy spawn of Satan’s armpit hair
  • Witch hunts
  • “The civil war”
  • The Spanish Armada is defeated by Britain being awesome in a totally unspecified way
  • Britain decided to end the slave trade but only after profiting from it greatly and at around the same time as everyone else in Europe, probably because the industrial revolution had started and manual labour was becoming less important
  • The Industrial Revolution, which according to this version of events consists entirely of “Steam Engine → power loom (that it exists, no description given) → one specific picture of Isambard Kingdom Brunel
  • Queen Victoria, who never smiled, perfectly embodied the essence of what it means to be British by calling herself “Empress of India”, marrying her first cousin (Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha) and being the head of state when the Great Famine hit Ireland and a million people starved to death
  • World War 1
  • World War 2, where the UK stood alone against the Nazis with only the help of USA, the USSR, the British Empire, the French resistance, the Danish resistance…

In addition to my sarcastic strike-through comments, notice what is missing:

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Science

Electrodynamic Lagrange points and fusion reactors

In celestial mechanics, the Lagrangian points (/ləˈɡrɑːniən/ also Lagrange points,[1] L-points, or libration points) are the points near two large bodies in orbit where a smaller object will maintain its position relative to the large orbiting bodies. At other locations, a small object would go into its own orbit around one of the large bodies, but at the Lagrangian points the gravitational forces of the two large bodies, the centripetal force of orbital motion, and (for certain points) the Coriolis acceleration all match up in a way that cause the small object to maintain a stable or nearly stable position relative to the large bodies.

“Lagrangian point”, Wikipedia

I’ve only seen this concept in reference to gravitational fields. I suspect an equivalent may exist for electric fields, which may be useful for developing an improved electrically confined fusion reactor (AKA the sort that school students make every so often as science fair projects, which currently have so many flaws that almost nobody expects them to ever become useful power sources).

Why would it be useful? Let’s begin with the current problem: electrostatic fusion reactors have two grids, one a cathode and the other an anode, to create the electric fields which accelerate the ions enough for nuclear fusion to happen. Unfortunately, fusion is very unlikely compared to the ions simply bouncing off each other, which means even a very spacious grid — 99% empty — isn’t empty enough, and most of the power gets wasted by the few ions which hit the grid each time they fly past.

Some designs try to get around the grid problem. For example Robert Bussard (yes that one) has designed the Polywell reactor which uses a virtual cathode: a cloud of magnetically confined electrons. Another possibility I’ve never had time (and probably resources) to simulate was finding out if the so-called “star mode” of a Farnsworth Fusor, where the ions primarily flow through the gaps in the grids, might be caused by a magnetic field generated by the current flowing between the grids — if it is, you could enhance that field relatively easily, and boost the efficiency. This probably still won’t make it a net power producer (anything I can think of will have been thought of a hundred times already by the professionals), but it might still be interesting for other things.

This brings me to the idea of a Lagrange point as a virtual cathode, where the virtual cathode is the dynamic balance of the electric charges as they move.

It might not be possible at all (gravity is always attractive, unlike electric fields, and this may cause extra problems when you have a plasma field rather than claiming equivalence from a few point-like masses to a a few point-like charges); and even if it is possible at all, it might require a prohibitive power consumption (accelerating a charge produces electromagnetic radiation, slowing the charge down in the process).

Of course, the equivalence of moving electric fields and magnetic fields makes me wonder, again, if a hybrid electric- and magnetic-confinement fusion reactor could do better than either on their own.

Disclaimer: I’m a software engineer, not a doctor of physics. If a proper scientist disagrees with me, trust them.

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Noteworthy

XKCD-2152

Hover text: “Sitting here idly trying to figure out how the population of the Old West in the late 1800s compares to the number of Red Dead Redemption 2 players.” — https://xkcd.com/2152/ — This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 License.

Population of old (1900) American West: 4.277.402
Number of Red Dead Redemption 2 sales: >24 million.

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Philosophy

Dot product morality

The first time I felt confused about morality was as a child. I was about six, and saw a D&D-style role-playing magazine; On the cover, there were two groups preparing to fight, one dressed as barbarians, the other as soldiers or something1. I asked my brother “Which are the goodies and which are the baddies?”, and I couldn’t understand him when he told me neither of them were.

Boolean.

When I was 14 or so, in the middle of a Catholic secondary school, I discovered neopaganism; instead of the Bible and the Ten Commandments, I started following the Wiccan Rede (if it doesn’t hurt anyone, do what you like). Initially I still suffered from the hubris of black-and-white thinking, even though I’d witnessed others falling into that trap and thought poorly of them for it, but eventually my exposure to alternative religious and spiritual ideas made me recognise that morality is shades of grey.

Float.

Because of the nature of the UK education system, between school and university I spent 2 years doing A-levels, and one of the subjects I studied was philosophy. Between repeated failures to prove god exists, we covered ethics, specifically emotivism, AKA the hurrah/boo theory, which claims there are no objective morals, and that claims about them are merely emotional attitudes — the standard response at this point is to claim that “murder is wrong” is objective, at which point someone demonstrates plenty of people disagree with you about what counts as murder (abortion, execution, deaths in war, death by dangerous driving, meat, that sort of thing). I don’t think I understood it at that age, any more than I understood my brother saying “neither” when I was six; it’s hard to be sure after so much time.

Then I encountered complicated people. People who could be incredibly moral in one axis, and monsters in another. I can’t remember the exact example that showed it first, but I have plenty to choose from now — on a national scale, the British empire did a great deal to end slavery, yet acted in appalling ways to many of the people under it’s rule; on an individual scale, you can find scandals for Gandhi and Churchill, not just obvious modern examples of formerly-liked celebrities like Kevin Spacey and Rolf Harris. In all cases, saying someone is “evil” or “not evil”, or even “0.5 on the 0-1 evil axis” is misleading — you can trust Churchill 100% to run 1940 UK while simultaneously refusing to trust him (0% trust) to care about anyone who wasn’t a white Protestant, though obviously your percentages might be different.

I’ve been interested in artificial intelligence and artificial neural networks for longer than I’ve been able to follow the maths. When you, as a natural neural network, try to measure something, you do so with a high-dimensional vector-space of inputs (well, many such spaces, each layered on top of each other, with the outputs of one layer being the inputs of the next layer) and that includes morality.

When you ask how moral someone else is, how moral some behaviour is, what you’re doing is essentially a dot-product of your moral code with their moral code. You may or may not filter that down into a single “good/bad” boolean afterwards — that’s easy for a neural network, and makes no difference.

1 I can’t remember exactly, but it doesn’t matter.

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