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Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Traveller Tuesday Follow-Up: Idyll Speculation

Yesterday's post really struck a chord with some of the GMs in a Traveller discussion group. Here are some of the best comments!

Paul Nunes

[Idyll Hands] Would need to be heavy in maintenance bots and a control AI.

Then separate AIs (Ghost in the Shell types) that prowl datanets at high rates.

Probably would have to link to satellites in system that are already aggregating data via their own AIs.

The time delays for light speed transmission would make collecting data [difficult] let alone the lags of a orbital satellite transmitting a ground based intranet.

The recluse would need to be a uber-rich genius from a very high tech world to have the means to own any worlds data net. Just having codes isn't enough. Software would be the most major hurdle..... Everyone is going to have their own style of windows, unix, cobol, C++, etc. Any jump insystem would require the AIs update or teach themselves the local programming code before tackling 512k fractal encryption protocols.

I interjected

Although I don't know if it would need self-updating AIs if it has access to the Scout Service's comm network, which certainly must be standardized across the Imperium.

Paul continued

The Scout Network is probably linked with self propagating software patches........ Dirtside, Orbital, and Belter computer networks wouldn't have to conform necessarily, and in some systems where Imperial presence is barely tolerated systems likely would not.

Now, a satellite in orbit over a world that has a legitimate reason for being, such as weather or telecomms, could also be sniffing every level of the electromagnetic spectrum. The AI onboard would be sorting (like Carnivore) by keywords, origin, repetition the data for relevance and flagging for review. The satellite would then dump a copy of the AI into a transmission when queried with the right code sequence. That copy would be downloaded whole to storage onboard and aggressively file scanned by Intrusion Countermeasure AIs for hidden code, altered code, trojans, viruses, and outside source subroutines. After that the AI would report to a Triumvirate of superior AIs that would analyze and vote on the relevance or importance of the data, a 2 of 3 or 3 of 3 agreement would be required for the data to be flagged for second review or human action.

Ted Kocot

The question you have to ask yourself Paul, is, well, let's take a system where Imperial presence is barely tolerated and they're not conforming. When did they start not conforming? How much code is getting recycled even if they aren't in compliance with the standards? And most importantly, how many code monkeys and custom software firms can an eccentric information broker obtain a significant stake in over 100 years?

We're maybe 50 years out from when computers first became a common tool for business. But remember how in 2000 we suddenly desperately needed COBOL programmers and we needed them right now or we were all going to diiiiiie from the Y2K thing! Nobody was rewriting their 20 or 30 year old code then - just patch it and move on. And that's 20st century Earth where the biggest difficulty a programmer in Oslo will have in setting up a conference call with her colleagues in Osaka, Mumbai and San Francisco is getting them all in the office at the same time and the vast majority of your coders are still going to be alive.

Now think about a universe where travel across a sector takes more than a month in the fastest ship and some of your software is really old. If we're reluctant to rewrite code that works just fine now, how long do you think it takes them to update fundamental things? Insert yourself into the system early enough or deep enough and don't do anything that's going to leave too much of a "Hey, someone knows our every move!" smoking gun and you don't have to do anything to stay in the loop - just sit back and let them send your various and sundry agents new copies of the keys to everything.

Vinge created a profession - programmer/archaeologist - "where your job is to excavate the underlayers of the old programs your computers are running". Unless you're doing hard core New Era stuff with fears of the Virus at every turn, I'm guessing that programmer/archaeologist is going to be a pretty common profession in the Traveller universe.

Paul again

As for the ship...... This guy needs to be a talented and multidisciplinary engineer....... Software analysis, Facilities maintenance, robotics, heuristic computer networking, power systems, naval electronics, drive systems........

The ship would need a control AI / Damage control AI..... possibly another triumvirate voting system that is the hivemind of a fleet of semi-autonomous maintenance bots. Maintenance begins before something breaks. Bots would query sensors for accurate readings, Xray scan structural members for stress fractures, change filters, clean cosmic dust from exterior comm antennas, windows, lenses, etc, change filters and media in environmental systems.

That and be a fine pilot, astrogator, insystem navigator, ships systems engineer, communication officer, and cargo handler.

And now, some lovely rumors and speculation:

No one knows how True Tomas takes on supplies or gets repairs. The general theory is that since ships of this class come with a 20 ton launch, perhaps it is being sent to port for supplies.

Or possibly the Idyll Hands has a tortuga port somewhere.

Or maybe it meets with other vessels in the empty space between systems

Or perhaps everyone on board ship is dead, and it's run by an AI that thinks it's human... an AI back up of True Tomas, perhaps? An artificial copy of the long dead guy that was just meant to answer calls when he was sleeping.

Hmmmm. How many Idyll Hands are there really? The Aquemna is a VERY common design.... the hardest part would be spoofing the transponder. Which, given Paul's analysis above, wouldn't be that hard for someone with those abilities.

Or, to come at this from another direction - the PCs are hired to do something dull during some kind of scientific survey to some otherwise uninhabited systems blah blah snore - and all they have to do is refit a backup system or three en route. Four or five jumps and then back to where you started with a bunch of sorely needed credits. Literally, the GM is just GIVING the players a month or so of pay for rolling a few dice.

It's not until later they realize that their times spent in boring out of the way systems corresponded almost exactly with Idyll Hands' visits to nearby major systems. And that scientific surveys generally don't have money to just throw at things like refits in space. And is there any way to capitalize on that....

There could be all sorts of nifty lost data sitting ignored in its DB, which would probably log anomalies as a matter of routine.

I can totally see there being this BS body of lore built up around him:
  • He keeps transferring his intelligence into clones of himself
  • He's an Ancient device made to gather intelligence for their inevitable return
  • He's the last surviving TL16 Darrian, kept alive by advanced science
  • He leads the Ine Givar
  • It's a false flag by the Scout Service
  • It's a secret op by Navy Intelligence
  • It's a Zhodani psyop
  • He's Rasputin
  • He's actually a committee (Something like Anonymous, with more trigger discipline)
  • He's a project an investment concern manages to make sure they're always a little bit ahead of everyone else, but not so much that anyone would notice

Heh, I could also see playing it such that True Tomas and the Idyll Hands aren't directly related - like confusing UPS, with Amazon, with the companies that make all the stuff that you can buy on Amazon's website. So that when the players go to great lengths to pick at one string they find more strings leading to a whole different tapestry.

So, True Tomas basically rents bandwidth on the Idyll Hands?

 Or hitches a ride, hidden in the data.

Any or all of these might be true. Isn't speculation fun?

Halloween Countdown, day 10

Yes, for the next 10 days I'm going to count down to Halloween with a set of Vampire: the Masquerade-themed My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic art.

You have my permission to start screaming.... now.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Traveller Tuesday: Idyll Hands

This is a rumor that I frightened my players with last game session....

The following is all rumor and hearsay, told by spacers in dive bars and by computer users on forums and newsgroups alike. It's about as believable as the theory that Lyme disease was bioengineered in the 1950s  at Plum Island Animal Disease Center in New York by former Nazi Eric Traub to be a weapon against the Soviets during the Cold War, i.e. there's no way to substantiate any claims, but the data seems to line up.

The Ship

According to the legend, there is a ship that trawls the spacelanes between Regina and Sol, collecting and transmitting data. Known as the Idyll Hands, it is a 10,000 dton Aquemna-class Fuel Tanker that was bought by an eccentric information broker. Completely automated, the ship requires no crew and carries only the owner himself. Given the massive amounts of fuel it carries, it can perform four Jump-2s before needing to replenish. Between this long range, and its capability to perform frontier refueling, the Idyll Hands disappears for months between check-ins.

And check-in it does; when it makes an appearance, it is nearly always within a system that is an Xboat hub. Failing that, it chooses a high-tech, high-population system with a good commnet. There, it sends out an information-dense burst transmission -- in much the same way Xboats do when arriving in-system -- and then refuels and departs. It is assumed that during this time the Idyll Hands is downloading data, but it has yet to be confirmed.

One would think that an automated tanker like this would be easy prey for pirates, but one would be mistaken.  For one, it travels at 4 Gs of thrust. For two, its sheer size (10,000 dtons equates to 66 hull and structure points) means that a single pirate ship will be unable to bring it down for the same reason that a single harpoonist cannot bring down a whale, and pirate armadas are shockingly rare outside of Vargr space. For three, it has almost certainly been up-armored and armed, because if you're an eccentric that is automating a capital ship, why not pay more for survivability?

It is worth noting that the ship never docks. Never. It jumps into a system, transmits, and then either immediately leaves or it hangs around for a bit (possibly refueling) as it uploads, and then it leaves.

No one knows how it takes on supplies or gets repairs. The general theory is that since ships of this class come with a 20 ton launch, perhaps it is being sent to port for supplies. Given its size and non-existent crew, it could theoretically go for years without needing repairs if sufficient supplies were laid in.

Or possibly the Idyll Hands has a tortuga port somewhere.

Or perhaps everyone on board ship is dead, and it's run by an AI that thinks it's human.

The Owner

Immediately after the burst transmission, posts from someone known as True Tomas pop up. If you have ever been a member of a mailing list, forum or website that has been in existence for years, you know that there is invariably one member of the "old guard" present, who has seen all of the newbie questions so many times that he has the FAQ set to auto-reply and can shut down most flamewars by his very presence? That's True Tomas, and he's on nearly every one of them that is dedicated to what you might call "useful information".

Conspiracy theories, war nerdery, political forums (of all manner of orientation), and the various gray- and black-net sites of legalities ranging from "dubious" to "a lifetime in prison,", True Tomas trawls them all. He rarely posts, mostly just aggregating data... but as the rumor goes:  If you need to know something, and you have information of equal or greater value to exchange, and you say his name, he will contact you and arrange a trade.

Sure, there are plenty of people who say they've had dealings with True Tomas, but none of them have offered any proof of their dealings.  It's generally believed that any who have information worth trading also have the good sense to keep their mouths shut about what was traded, and that the big mouths are just posers.

Sometimes True Tomas will post. It is VERY rare, and it is usually happens when someone is impugning his reputation. It is a data slapdown, done with all the grace of an @nuke (think of how 4chan deals with people it doesn't like), so destroying that person's reputation (both online and real) such that they have to find another planet on which to live.

No one knows how True Tomas manages to get all of his information. (The storage and aggregation isn't an issue -- a stock Aquemna has a Core/4 computer with a 50 Rating, more than enough to hold yottabytes of data.) Rumor has it that True Tomas owner is an ex-Scout who somehow managed to retain his access codes to their information network, but that rumor is... troubling... because this particular ship has been in existence for over one hundred years. 

And there are records that True Tomas has been around even longer...

Monday, October 20, 2014

Gun Blog Variety Podcast #9

I'm guest host on this week's Gun Blog Variety Cast because WizardPC's wife had a baby! Congrats, Wizard family!

So naturally, this means that I bring up the topic of cute little cartoon ponies... and I get it on record that Sean Sorrentino approves of "Epic Wub Time."   ;)

Don't worry, I also do my usual Blue Collar Prepping segment as well.

You can listen to the podcast here, and the show notes may be found here.

Sunday, Pony Sunday: the Pony Cast

Yeah, I haven't done one of these in a while. I decided to get back into the habit.

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