Saturday, August 15, 2015

So you want to visit another star?

This topic has no relation to SEAC, but is a fun exercise on some misconceptions with slowboating it to another star, So you want to go to another star eh? Unfortunately, scientists are stubborn about inventing quicker space travel. Something about physics and Einstein being a kill-joy. Instead of doing it the way we'd like to, we're stuck slowboating it across with current methods. For reference, the closest star is 4.24 light years away, with 5 other systems being less than 8.5 light years away. But why is that a problem? I know our governments are cheap, but what if we assume they're not, wouldn't that help negate the distance problem by going faster? Can't happen.

Let's start with some beginning misconceptions. The most common misconception I'll hear about is a focus on acceleration. Usually something along the line of "If we accelerate at x for y, we'll reach our destination in z years". Nothing seems off at first glance if you're not familiar with the subject, but we measure a rocket's propellant in terms of delta-velocity (dV) for good reason - the total change in velocity is a static number for the rocket and the rate of acceleration is meaningless for the majority of cases. To be clear, the amount of dV a rocket has is what's important for how quickly it can go between stars, and not any other property.

So, the objective is clearly to get more dV into the rocket if we want to get to the star quicker. If dV is propellant, why can't we keep adding more to get to a higher speed? For a rocket, the dV is dependent on the exhaust velocity of the rocket and the percentage of mass spent on propellant compared to everything else. Because we don't have any new rocket engines just now, we can treat the exhaust velocity as a constant. Thus, if we can get more dV by devoting more mass to propellant, why don't we? The easy answer is that the mass not spent on propellant still needs to cover the mass of the engines, containers, and other structural necessities. For a given engine and engineering know-how, there will always be a maximum amount of dV you can put on a rocket.

I can't put more fuel on the rocket. But what about putting more fuel in front of it? On Earth, if I can only carry so many days of supplies, but need to get farther than those supplies allow, I can leave supply depots in-between. If you do the math, it's easy to see that such a strategy takes a lot of extra supplies and time, but it does work. Seems simple to apply a similar solution to rockets. Send out a rocket ahead of time full of fuel. When the main rocket gets to the new one, you can refuel. Get enough of those, and you get tons of extra fuel, wouldn't you? If you're paying attention, I'm betting you already know the answer. (This doesn't work, if you didn't guess)

The primary problem with a strategy of this sort is for the rocket to get the additional fuel, that fuel needs to be at the same location, but also needs a similar speed. You do not want to run into tons of fuel going 1 km/s relative to yourself. It'd make two freight trains colliding look like a gentle accident. Clearly, you'd want to have the supply rocket accelerate to the same speed as the main rocket beforehand. If you're doing that, there's no reason to have it start out farther, so we'd have it start out with the rocket.  Instead of having the supply rocket refuel the main rocket, it's simpler to have it fire first, use up its fuel, and then jettison it rather than carry it along. This is effectively how staging/booster rockets work, and they have the same rules as supply depots. It takes a lot of extra supplies for a small boost in distance. This works to an extent, but doesn't allow for much extra dV, unfortunately.

Lastly, remember that even if we accept that it will take hundreds of years to go to another star, the technology isn't there to make it worth anything. A computer that can last that long would be impossible with current tech. Getting a self-repairing computer would be closer to possible, but still far away from what we can do now. Using a generation ship that recycles all its materials is even more complicated, and potentially not doable with our current energy technology.

Hopefully that helps answer some of the questions on why faster-than-light drives are so darned handy.

Who Makes Decisions?

This post will be a slight deviation from my usual stuff; this time I'll be focusing on game design and a dash of politics, rather than science fiction concepts that people might not be familiar with. From my (limited) experience, one idea that seems to hold true is that when decisions in a story are made, they should be done by the actors of that story. For stories, this relates to the idea of Chekhov's Gun, and the general idea to not include extraneous bits to the story. For games, the same idea holds true, with the additional corollary that if a decision needs to be made, then the game must have someone to make it.

This is a simple idea at heart, but leads to problems with design if not taken into account. The classical Civilization series of games involves a single leader making all the decisions for their civilization for the entire game. That style of play works well, and mimics the board game play that it evolved from. One player makes decisions, and the gameplay itself is similar to moving pieces around on a board, with no actors other than the omniscient leaders. But what if we want to delve deeper into the simulation? Naturally, you'd need more actors around to handle decisions, and it can be easy to forget some of them.

The fun part about making these actors is to remind me as the creator who would actually make these decisions. That can be easy to forget at times, because who makes decisions and why can drastically change which decisions are made. Take the already mentioned Civilization games: as a player, I have no problems ordering my units  to attack and annex other civilizations if it makes mine stronger. That's part of the game, and I've already pointed out that I see them as pawns on a gameboard. But imagine, instead, that it was the actual leader of a civilization making that decision? Would he choose to send his citizens to die for some cities that may not matter?

Which brings me to my game, how far down do I want people to be making decisions, and what are their motivations? I haven't reached the stage where I can make a good decision, but this is one of those big questions. To give a quick example, as the head of SEAC you receive orders from Earth. One way of dealing with that is to show the leaders of each faction, along with their interests, thereby treating each as their own actor. Another way is to condense them into a single actor, likely hidden behind a new actor that serves as an adviser/emissary to the player. Both serve a similar gameplay purpose to give the player direction and requirements, but provide different variance on where the game's focus lies. Adding more actors at home means the player must focus more on home events.

My last point is, I'm afraid, a tad political. This idea, that actors make decisions, is highly important in the real world as well. We have big organizations that we find it easy to devolve into single entities, like corporations or governments, that are made up of different decisions made by the people within them. In short, a corporation doesn't decide to screw you, but instead someone within that company. Why is that important? Because it changes how we see things, and should hopefully lead us to make better decisions.

As a personal example, I've played some board games that are built around the purchase of stocks and control of companies. The best example was a game where we bought stocks in train companies, then whoever had the most stock in that company would choose which actions the company took. It's easy to equate the company you control as being you, given that you control the actions and receive rewards based on how well you do, but if you want to do well in the game, you can't think this way. Instead, the game is structured to keep things interesting, and promote company ownership changing.

In the midgame, the early trains would become obsolete, forcing the companies to buy newer trains. If you prepared for it, a company would have enough money to weather the transition no problem, but that was an unpopular strategy. Rather than keeping the money, it was useful to pay out the money to shareholders and keep stock prices high. Before paying, you'd then sell your stock to the market, letting someone else take over, who would then pay from their pocket for the new trains. The company itself continues on most of the time (there were crazy rules for bankruptcy that I only saw once), but it showed very obviously that these companies did not exist as decision makers, the players were.

Now, for real world companies, similar rules apply. The reasons for why things happen will often have very good reasons behind them, even if they don't make sense to an outsider. The train game was obviously setup to create conflict and keep things interesting, but the core idea still applies. Ideally, we'd prefer that the rules that we create for real world corporations pushes for the outcomes we find more acceptable. I'm sure if asked, people can give other examples of where decisions made sense to the individuals that created situations we consider unfortunate. And if someone wants to change things for the better, it's imperative that they keep in mind who makes decisions and why, or else you only create more problems. In other words, corporations are not evil, as they have no capacity to be evil or good. Instead, it is the people in charge that make decisions we find unfavorable, perhaps because the system made those decisions so desirable.