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In a distant future where FTL interstellar travel is commonplace, there is a stable large-scale market for a commodity called photonic negentropy ("PhoNE" for short, though nobody remembers what the word was once used for). PhoNE is a kind of consumable "wonder-stuff" that facilitates the construction and operation of self-repairing nanomachinery. A constant supply of it makes a system more or less self-sufficient, in place of repairing or replacing components by hand, though it is used mostly in technology that can't reliably be accessed by repair drones or personnel properly. It occurs naturally in the vicinity of stellar outflows, with asymptotic giant branch stars being the best source (but all stars producing some). Some believe, perhaps religiously, that its existence is a mark of the entire universe preparing to recycle itself.

PhoNE is harvested with sails, large sheets of smart-matter fabric that sieve out the useful part of stellar wind, and stored in battery-like cells for trade. It is a reliable commodity everywhere in civilized space: it is always in demand, and just about every station and planet has people willing to buy and sell it, albeit at unfortunately low prices. System-wide governments or major corporations typically put huge banks of static sails in low solar orbits, collecting their batteries every so often, while ships can mount their own sails for lower quantities of it.

There is at least one way in which PhoNE is not really a commodity: it is still somewhat profitable to collect it yourself. In our world, if you try to start a one-man operation for some fungible resource like iron, then even ignoring the initial investment you have no hope of breaking even, because economies of scale have lowered the price such that only the largest industrial mining operations can profit.

But, for whatever reason I'm trying to figure out, that's not the case with PhoNE. While high-speed transports, warships, and such don't mount sails because the returns are tiny and they need to save space and weight, there is a small interstellar community of private yacht and passenger-ship owners who do. They collect PhoNE on their voyages, use some fraction to save on their own maintenance, and sell the rest when they dock, in order to pay for docking permissions and any reasonable purchases they have to make in station. It's not lucrative by any means — investing in stocks is probably better for returns overall if you're already rich — but it's enough to get by and support someone who wants to be a "self-sufficient" spacer. In fact, there are even debt-relief agencies who will rent out harvesting ships to spacers, take a cut of the PhoNE sales, and let their client use the rest to pay off debts.

I'm trying to figure out how this can be the case. Something about the nature or harvesting of this material means that, even with the bulk of intake being provided by giant industrial sail operations, it's possible to get by, though not get rich quick, off going out in a ship with a sail and harvesting it oneself. What is it?


As requested, a few details on the economics:

  • A starship's warp drive runs off reactor power alone, and can push a vehicle in any direction from any location (though warp entry and exit points must be in vacuum). In-system travel is limited, by the rate of warp acceleration, to a few dozen times the speed of light, and is monitored in civilized systems by remote-control warp stations that can control nearby flights to prevent accidents. Travel between systems takes at least half a day; most civilian vehicles have a reliable top speed of about 10,000c (~0.4 pc/hr) but take several more hours to get up to speed or slow down. There is no limitation on how far a warp trip can take a ship.
  • Mass recycling is quite robust even without any PhoNE-based tech, so a ship designed for long-haul flights can stay out in space comfortably for many years. Anti-aging treatments are cheap and commonplace, but living for decades or centuries as a spacer is considered fairly weird. So the main timer on when you have to come back to port is mostly societal (is there a port to come back to?)
  • A minimally functional warp-capable starship is just about affordable for a middle-class person who wants to burn all their money on one, though renting is far cheaper — ships are built to last a long time. The equipment for storing and handling PhoNE is inexpensive compared to the somewhat more expensive ship you need simply to be big enough to carry it.
  • I do not have a clear notion of how much harvesting one needs to do to pay for trip expenses. Consider this a free variable for an answer.
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  • $\begingroup$ Your self-answer relies on interstellar travel not only being commonplace but also very cheap and presumably FTL (unless everyone is very long-lived). I suggest that you need to provide some qualatative information on the performance and comparative cost of both in-system and FTL drives (eg fuel costs for any travel are negligible and ships can travel interstellar distances at 100x speed of light). $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 26, 2023 at 21:01
  • $\begingroup$ @KerrAvon2055 Understandable. I hope I have given enough below the horizontal line there to help. $\endgroup$
    – parasoup
    Commented Nov 26, 2023 at 21:36
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    $\begingroup$ I think you have thought it through enough on your own, some other things you might consider are logistics (individuals can harvest it and bring to some remote planet or cover some slumps in production), or monopoly economics (government might put premium taxes on PhoNE, so there is incentive to harvest and trade under the table) $\endgroup$
    – Jzuken
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 19:03
  • $\begingroup$ Other than the basic idea of harvesting stars, what remains in doubt when you ask any farmer or miner about the process? How is 'star harvesting' different from any other kind of harvesting; agriculture, straight mineral mining, asteroid mining or what have you? In every form of mining, 'private' is irrelevant except by coincidence. Who doubts that, consider the early days of De Beers, et al. 'small-scale' generally means 'merely marginably profitable' as when now, much of the effort in gold mining produces grammes of gold per ton of rock. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 30, 2023 at 1:54
  • $\begingroup$ @RobbieGoodwin My understanding of commodity economics is that there is a strong push towards economies of scale dominating a sector, because without the appeal of specific branding people will always try to buy the cheapest usable good. Hence why, in regions with the industry and logistics to support large corporate mining, you don't see individuals buying plots and giving it a try themselves. "There are no boutique oil refineries," as I've heard it said. I wanted to tell a story where the situation was different. $\endgroup$
    – parasoup
    Commented Nov 30, 2023 at 2:04

14 Answers 14

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Small-scale harvesting is more art than science.

Your flow of PhoNE is variable and difficult to predict. It changes constantly.

Large-scale operations just throw a huge "net" and sell whatever they catch. Average return, but the huge scale makes up for it.

Small-scale operations find temporary currents or concentrated streams to harvest which yields a lot at once, but still a relatively small quantity by industrial standards—BUT they also have a low harvesting cost, so it's very profitable. A skilled harvester can predict it reliably enough to make a profit.

Imagine gold mining if the concentration of ore was constantly in flux. You can harvest the whole deposit and average it out, or—if you are skilled—take one whack with a pickaxe at just the right time and snatch chunks of pure solid gold just when the concentration is at its highest. Both are profitable, but the latter requires a great deal of skill. Space is big enough for both to be done without conflicting.

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    $\begingroup$ This justifies using ships (they move) and doesn't necessitate (but still permits) leaving known space to get a profit flying solo. Better than my own thoughts. +1. $\endgroup$
    – parasoup
    Commented Nov 27, 2023 at 1:06
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    $\begingroup$ It all sounds more like fishing or even hunting than mining $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Commented Nov 27, 2023 at 12:27
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    $\begingroup$ @ChrisH think one part free sailing, one part troll fishing, one part gold panning. $\endgroup$
    – John
    Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 1:18
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    $\begingroup$ Hmm I say a no, if a higher density current can be found by a solo shipper, then it should be pretty easy to predict where should the flow be, to get there, unfold the sail and catch the flow. Even if it's hrd to predict, but profitable to seek, then big corps that do mine that star will raise a neural net and train it to find those streams and predict their appearance beforehand, and reap the profits. There should be something more than simple obscurity to pose a challenge that's solvable by humans but either unsolvable or unprofitable to mass mining corp. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 15:30
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    $\begingroup$ If the temporary concentration is too small for a large organization to get any benefit from its economies of scale, they won't bother. Maybe they could turn a profit if these phenomena were predictable, concentrated and repeating; so make them chaotic and widely dispersed. Remember, large corporations only have lower margins if they can bring their economies of scale to bear (and they have to make some ROI, so dragging a huge platform somewhere for a brief event won't be worthwhile even if its efficiency is great in isolation) $\endgroup$
    – Useless
    Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 17:15
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Space is dangerous, as we all know. And space around big stars, space that's full of the stellar wind that contains Phone, is extra dangerous.

So if you're a big corporation harvesting Phone with these huge sail-stations and ships, and you want to avoid the wrath of the workplace safety people and massive wrongful-death suits, you need to make the entire process as idiot-proof as possible. Loads of personal safety gear, ships larded with all kinds of just-in-case contingency equipment, countless billions of worker-hours of boring lectures about standards and practices. Not to mention a paper trail that proves you dotted every last i and crossed every last t.

That's a lot of work! And while it's worth putting in all that work to keep the government (and their law-enforcement battleships) off your back, there's no getting around the fact that the market rate for Phone is a good deal higher than strictly necessary. You could harvest it a lot cheaper, if you didn't need all those permits and inspections. If you could find people crazy enough to dive close to those big stars without all the redundancies and safety gear and quadruple-checking of every thruster burn.

Good news! There are always people crazy enough, or desperate enough, or arrogant enough to try it. People who think they don't need all those redundancies because they're just that good. Because they're always very careful. Because they're smarter than the government drones who write the standard. Because their ship can take a few knocks and they know it. Or because this is their only chance of keeping ahead of the law, ahead of the debt collectors, ahead of their past.

Of course, some of those people will discover that the rules do exist for a reason, most of them anyway. They'll discover that they weren't as fast, or smart, or careful, or lucky as they thought, and they probably won't make it back. But some of them will roll the dice and come out ahead, for awhile anyway.

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Social problems

Two social factors might do the trick:

  • persistent sabotage by political groups unhappy with the status quo
  • non-violent people who also want to live off-grid

If your fictional world is anything like the real world, it will be dominated by very large and wealthy groups that use their economic power to squeeze most people to death for power and profit. This will very naturally result in discontents who are eager to tear down the big players. Some of these groups will also be misinformed, or even manipulated by medium-sized players seeking an unfair advantage by fomenting useful violence against their competition.

A big problem with your massive corporate harvesting collections is that they are big, stationary targets. A lone actor with access to a spaceship will be able to hurl junk at the collector sails, and perform other kinds of sabotage.

They cannot target transient "hobbyist" collectors, who aren't around long enough to be the target of bombardment. They won't target the hobbyists either, because those hobbyists are the people they'd prefer to have harvesting PhoNe.

Hobbyist collectors are the only vendors that disaffected groups will buy PhoNe from -- not just for reasons of political preference, but because they wish to stay off the grid in one way or another, and the hobbyists are fine with that.

This will include lots of people who are not criminals in any sense. They need PhoNe just as much as anybody else, they just don't want to buy it from EvilMegacorp: they don't want EvilMegacorp to gain their money, collect their payment information, be able to generate consumer profiles in order to squeeze them harder, etc. They do want to support individual people.

This doesn't mean that out-groups are the only market for solo PhoNe harvesters, but they will be a natural market.

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    $\begingroup$ Big corps would still harvest it, but they would have additional costs for regular equipment repair and active defense systems. $\endgroup$
    – Zags
    Commented Nov 27, 2023 at 19:47
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  1. First possibility: there's no difference between PhoNE and gold, today. Large corporations mine gold, but it's valuable enough that medium and small (even hobbyist) miners can make a living (even gain wealth) mining it. This happens because gold is useful in a LOT of ways, which means that even with industrial extraction, the want for gold is ever greater than the supply.

  2. You could make the quality of PhoNE dependent on something desirable to avoid to large-scale miners. Something like the quality is better when harvested out of solar flares, and the closer you are to the source of the flare, the higher the quality of PhoNE. Or perhaps it's simply the closer you are to the star, the higher the quality of PhoNE, but the greater the risk of getting it.

  3. Profitability isn't dependent on social acceptability. Pseudoephedrine is a common over-the-counter decongestant that's cheap — but do a little behind-the-scenes chemistry and you get the much more profitable methamphetamine. PhoNE is run-of-the-mill, but do a little behind-the-scenes chemistry and what you get phu... well... something else that really expands someone's consciousness. This idea works from the perspective of profitability, but it likely doesn't work from the perspective of your proposed economic structure. If authorities knew one was harvesting for nefarious production, they wouldn't be lending out harvesting equipment for debt relief... but then again....

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Artisanship

What's the difference between a McDonalds, a local Fish and Chip takeaway and Gordon Ramsay?

All of these could be considered as real-word proxies for your PhoNE resource. All of them are essentially cooking food, but it's the skill in taking the raw (IT's F$%@ING RAW!) ingredient(s) and turning them into something that is desirable.

If you make PhoNE as tricky to refine at scale - then you have the perfect solution:

Big Industrial Mining entities, despite very strict policy and procedures, can only have a very limited oversight of the product - just like McDonalds - there's a large amount of variance. Sometimes it's cooked amazingly and it's like Nectar of the Gods (either that or you are Hungover/Still Drunk) other times it's 'Meh'.

The Local Takeaways are a good proxy for your Small Business owner who isn't going to get super-rich running it, but can make a rather a comfortable living.

Then, for added realism, you might get the occasional person who is really good at managing the refinement of PhoNE (like a Gordon Ramsay) who can command a very high price for their product and get rather rich off of it.

You could even add in some sort of incentive - whereby a few Small Business owners do very well, and this encourages a lot of people to try their hand at it - who do okayish (you could have an allegory to the likes of only 'fans' whereby a few people are hyper successful and this encourages a lot of people to try it)

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    $\begingroup$ Thinking about it, I'm not actually sure how this encourages individual harvesting ships. Why go out and harvest it yourself, taking valuable time on a ship with a smaller sail, when you could be spending that time mastering the refining process using raw PhoNE you bought for cheap off the market? I've upvoted because this is an answer (it's kind of an extreme version of what I put below) but the idea that the important part is in the refining process sort of short-circuits the idea of an individual expedition, at least in my head. I'm not sure how to address this... $\endgroup$
    – parasoup
    Commented Nov 26, 2023 at 22:29
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    $\begingroup$ @parasoup - Have the resource degrade with time. So the fresher you can get it - the easier it is to fetch a higher price. So the 'Best' artisans, go out to the source, immediately refine it and it's profitable - most people though aren't that good at it, so can't get rich, but can make a good living but to do so requires them to go out and do it themselves at the source. $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 26, 2023 at 23:57
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    $\begingroup$ Or have the refining a necessary step in storage - maybe it can't be compressed into cells in the raw state $\endgroup$
    – Chris H
    Commented Nov 27, 2023 at 12:28
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It decays

Your PhoNE might display properties of a fissile material like having a half-life, in cells or outside, therefore even if it's not expended, you would lose the contents of your PhoNE battery over time. Also it might instead behave like a rechargeable battery's self-discharge mechanics of RL, meaning that there could be better batteries that preserve more PhoNE for longer, yet still should be somehow charged with newly harvested Thing once in a while, even if you leave it stored.

This alone could be sufficient to require sunward missions for any single star system to at least retain PhoNE-independence and be able to remain self-sufficient in case of interstellar supply delays/break-ups, yet a good station/system government wants more as it's expensive to pay for logistics of this, thus a cheap manually controller fleet of solar miners is ready for an unhappy broke person to pilot towards the star's mining range and back, delivering some extra PhoNE for the community's needs. Also the stuff might get exceedingly volatile if collected "too dense", limiting the practical size of PhoNE storage devices (eg horror energy accumulators in Monsters, Inc), so delivering extra supplies in small/er quantities is always desirable.

Robotic mining is unsafe

There is a possibility that decay effects of PhoNE cause various levels of electric discharge all around the mining ship, occasionally causing it to "commit undesired operations" or just jam its commlink to inoperability, leading to excessive ship losses and a potential loss of collection point space station due to various reasons, therefore a star system must not only rely on robotic supply of stuff. Humans, while requiring a lot more than robots, are also capable of solving situations like detector jam or engine failure with direct actions, also it's possible that any discharge running across the ship is not enough to cause lasting or maybe even minor damage to a living pilot, thus humans are largely unaffected by it and human-driven ships do not experience excessive loss while harvesting PhoNE. Yet, if all mining would be done by humans, the overall costs would go too high to allow a mining company to stay afloat. This calls for some balance across prices, but in case robots are decently cheap to manufacture (hey we have nanites in operation, maybe it's true) while humans require a lot to get educated beyond what we have right here, in order to be able to pilot a mining ship and ensure safe return, both types of mining could be profitable at least to the miners.

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    $\begingroup$ I had a similar idea: PhoNE decays down to a certain stable volume (e.g. 20%) in a few days. After that these remaining 20% are called stable PhoNE, which doesn't decay any further. So while the large scale operations net stable PhoNE at 0.2 efficiency, the small sailors can bring in volatile PhoNE, which is effectively 5 times the quantitiy if used directly. - But if you can't sell or use it immediately it collapses down to 1/5 stable PhoNE. $\endgroup$
    – Falco
    Commented Nov 27, 2023 at 13:13
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    $\begingroup$ Decay is a great answer. You might also see a market for taking old, broken ships on Phone runs, since being exposed to the Phone Flux would let you use repair-nanos for free. You would rent your ship to a freelancer rather than pay for Phone from a major source. $\endgroup$
    – codeMonkey
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 17:57
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Copy the fishing industry

This just sounds like fishing to me. Giant corps go around with trawlers and serve most of the global demand. But that doesn't mean small operations can't go out and serve local demand or even individual demand. Long running family operations could be familiar with the star and stellar winds (like an old fisherman knows the seas and currents), thus enabling a family business type situation where individuals are able to harvest larger quantities per-capita than the big corps that just throw up sails and rely on size to achieve scale.

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  • $\begingroup$ I love the fishing analogy! That industry is so wildly diverse and fraught with tension; there's lots of stories in there. I think the "debt relief" harvesting the OP mentions is similar to certain fishing markets; I thought about that when I wrote my answer's postscript. Another example: tensions between long-term fishing communities that cultivate complex ties to ecosystems, short-term fishing operations that consume ecosystems, and non-fishing industries that simply pave over ecosystems. $\endgroup$
    – Vectornaut
    Commented Nov 29, 2023 at 18:49
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PhoNE is not refinable. At all.

It's a mess of mumble mumble, throws sci-fi dice of entangled particles of some exotic form of matter. Any interference, beyond delicately trapping it, causes it to instantly break down.

It is emitted unevenly, in bursts by the star. Lower layers and stronger bursts contain more of it.

So, your big megacorp produces "semi refined" PhoNE - it's what most stuff is made out of, it's fine. Works well, in most cases. It's harvested by cheap, disposable robot miners. Some contaminates, that interfere with delicate systems. Oh, and they're a bit radioactive - not the kind of thing you want on medical nanotech.

Refined PhoNE, however, needs high concentrations of the substance, from extremely close into the star, and, often, from unusual stars - An unstable star chucks out loads of it, but in erratic bursts. No one is going to set up a mining operation there. The whole thing would get burnt by a gamma ray burst, or some burst of x-ray radiation would wipe everyone out

Your artisian PhoNE miners have ships with sails that work like surf boards - you try and catch a big burst from the star, and ride it while the PhoNE tanks fill. Robots can't learn to read the solar flares, and can't learn to balance a ship while it's rocketing just ahead of a jet of superheated plasma being shot out of the surface of the star. They certainly can't learn to do it in an uncertain, 3 body star system whose stars are simultaneously collapsing in on each other and being ripped apart by tidal forces - but that's where the good stuff is. A successful AI rights movement makes it so putting more intelligent mining AIs in the disposable robots would be murder. And solar flares basically block any signals, so remote control is out.

The average life of a PhoNE miner is roughly two solar flare rides. Good ones sell information about the sites they find, and hope to retire before they end up cooked, irradiated, or driven insane by the stress.

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Light freight and passenger ship captain here! We do a lot of business in remote areas, so we always mount a sail to sustain PhoNE reserves in an an emergency. If you get caught in a solar storm a few hops out from a deep space observatory, or a micrometeorite tries to liberate the minerals you just picked up from an uncrewed asteroid mine, or you crash out of warp because some barely catalogued star has a dormant black hole companion that isn't on the charts, having enough PhoNE to repair comms, engines, and life support can make the difference between life and death.

On remote runs, we set out with full PhoNE reserves whenever we can, but full doesn't last—and full isn't always full enough. In-flight maintenance is always draining the PhoNE supply, especially in harsh environments where no one wants to build infrastructure, so we harvest when we can to keep supplies topped up. The adage that space always vents the tank you need the most very much applies to PhoNE storage. It's possible to take more than a full PhoNE reserve's worth of damage and still be alive enough to attempt repairs (ask me how I know). It's possible to be the only ship within twenty parsecs of a distress call, turning your PhoNE reserve into the lifeline for a much larger ship. Finally, if "civilized space" is the place where PhoNE is a reliable commodity, there are plenty of uncivilized little communities out there, and they still need specialty goods and FTL data delivery. When we visit those places, we don't expect to leave with full PhoNE reserves.

Thankfully, we also do a lot of business in developed areas, where we can save fuel and boost our payload mass fraction by emptying and powering down some of our PhoNE containment units. We do not, of course, empty those PhoNE tanks into space. At the end of a remote run, if the wind was good and not much went wrong, we can sell enough PhoNE into the pipes to cover docking fees, fresh food, "docking fees" (looking at you, Port Centauri cargo inspectors), i-mail, and maybe even a music hall show. We don't have the same profit margin as a planet-scale PhoNE utility, but that doesn't matter. So far, the return on our investment in a sail has been close to 100%, by which I mean 100% of passengers and crew getting off the ship alive. The money is just a nice sideline.

Similar considerations apply in other contexts. I've met plenty of comet campers, endurance racers, and warp hackers over the years, and let me tell you: they may be rich, but they're not stupid. These people invariably carry both generous PhoNE reserves and the best sails money can buy. Humanitarian disaster response and military special forces ships often have sails, and people who've worked on those ships often don't like not having sails. If you see a sail on a vacation yacht docked at an orbital ring in an asymptotic giant branch system, you can bet that someone on it has Seen Some Things. Do you remember the days, not even a thousand years ago, when major PhoNE distributors could and would refuse to serve dust-lane great-rafts and Cælinesian starcruisers? Some folks sure do. Their ships mount sails. Small ships mount sails for all sorts of reasons, and sometimes for no reason you'll ever know. If you spend enough time at spaceports, watching the ships come and go, you'll always find a few dreamy or scarred or reclusive people who just want to tend their closed-loop gardens and wander from star to star. They don't need much except a little skiff with a decent sail, and if on occasion they could use some money, selling off stored PhoNE is a fine way to get it. They always have it, and there's more where it came from. The wind, as they say, is free.

p.s. You also asked about debt relief PhoNE harvesting (or debt bondage PhoNE harvesting, depending on the details and your point of view). I don't know much about that. I have the impression that it often happens in politically unstable regions where the PhoNE majors won't operate, and on borders where governments want to say they control certain asymptotic giant branch stars without saying they control those stars, and in places where decommissioned ships and desperate people both come cheap. I also have the impression that more than a few journalists have looked into it, but less than a few stories have come out, so I hope you'll forgive me for not speculating further.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hmm quite a story, yet it's very vague to count for an answer, hence so few votes. And you know, I don't find any flaws in there, great job! $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Commented Nov 30, 2023 at 4:42
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Slot Machines and Restaurants

(partly borrowing/expanding on TheDemonLord's excellent restaurant analogy)

The simplest answer is that it is not, largely profitable. It has a slightly-negative EV, but with occasional 'spikes', the same way a slot machine does. Expulsions of PhoNe are random, come in different grades, and quickly denature in a vacuum, so harvesting is a matter of being in the right place at the right time to catch it and stabilize it.

  • Big industrial rigs are (mostly) not practical because having a bigger ship doesn't help you catch the small, rapidly vanishing expulsions.
  • Big companies aren't interested in hiring / training / equipping fleets of small ships, because across their investment, they are going to average to a loss.
  • System-sized governments go with the static approach, because they are able to operate at a loss in return for the consistency of having a consistent averaged amount of the stuff on hand. They're also alright with having the maintstay of their economy be the 'mid-grade' stuff.

80% of self-started PhoNe fishing operations close down within five years. You might think that stat will keep people from going into the business... except that happens to also be the real life number for what percent of restaurants fail, and there's not shortage of those. There will always be people who think they will be the success story. And because they're playing the slot machines... some percentage will, and their existence keeps the dream alive.

With a sufficiently close-to-50% EV, some percentage of people will catch just enough lucky breaks, just often enough, to justify continuing to operate in the business. Maybe there's even a real skill or talent component to it, where some people have a 'knack' for it, and are genuinely likely to do better than break-even.

Some portion of them tend to specialize in the highest grade of PhoNe, needed for specialty applications (or for snobs). Those people will likely end up with a fleet of a half-dozen ships or so, the Joël Robuchons and Alain Ducasses of the galaxy, making a profit by selling at a higher margin than the typical operations cna.

Other success stories are simply the inevitable survivorship bias lucky ones, turning a profit for years or even a lifetime, their good years keeping them going through the overall downward trend, buoyed by occasional successes.

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    $\begingroup$ Ooooo I like the idea of inconsistent/intermittent - that's a really good addition: Go Teamwork! $\endgroup$ Commented Nov 27, 2023 at 7:36
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Although somewhat similar to Cadence's answer in parts, I'd say intensity and dispersion.

The closer you are to the star producing PHoNE, the higher the intensity and the more you can grab per square unit of sail. The further away you are from the star, the more the PhoNE disperses, meaning lower intensity and the more sail you need to get the same amount of PhoNE.

Surrounding stars with massive sails would be big bank for corporate industry but sitting massive sails that close to a star incurs not only huge maintenance costs (solar flares, prolonged heat and radiation damage etc.) coupled with health and safety nightmares but also a massive backlash from environmentalists who think that surrounding and, essentially, obscuring stars is a major no-no even for uninhabited systems.

Since the ACB Uber-Collector disaster when two massive, fully-automated, close-proximity sail rigs collided in a solar storm, causing a freak detonation of their PhoNE stores which temporarily destabilised the star and thus the orbits of its planets, directly resulting in the extinction of over 30,000 species unique to that system, fully-automated, close-proximity sail rigs are illegal.

Given the above, the corporate players generally prefer to go for planet orbiting sails where they need quadruple the sail for the same amount of PhoNE but it's so much less of a headache to implement, not to mention the ease and savings of getting the PhoNE from their orbital source to their planet-side consumers by space elevator.

However, for a skilled pilot, star-skimming with a smaller sail does not obscure the stars. the pilot and ship's exposure to heat and radiation is for short, manageable bursts and they harvest a lot more PhoNE than would be possible from further away. Yes, they take a loss with the longer travel distance and time from source (star) to market (planet/space station) and back again but there is sufficient market to turn a profit, despite the higher costs of ship maintenance compared to a static, planet orbiting rig.

For the more laid back approach, e.g. private yacht cruises, space flight is essentially point in the right direction, deploy sufficient thrust to head that way and, optionally, turn off the engine until you need it again to slow down. They may get less PhoNE than one of the dedicated collectors from earlier but they are out to cruise as a priority and gather PhoNE as a benefit. Imagine if modern, private yachts on today's oceans could deploy fully automated fishing nets. All they'd have to do is cruise from A to B for pleasure and then sell off any fish they happened to collect along the way upon arrival. Given that collecting PhoNE is essentially deploy the sail and let it charge the batteries that we can then sell off on arrival, there is no reason why this wouldn't be at least sufficiently profitable to significantly reduce the cost of the journey if not even make a little profit.

As to why people would bother with such tiny margins, think about the borderline crypto miners these days. When the market takes a dip, they turn off their mining rigs as their mining profits don't cover the electricity bill. If they mined with, say, dedicated solar panels on their roof, then they'd leave their rigs on all day and possibly make slightly less than they would on mains power as solar power has ups and downs based on the weather and the time of year but they could let it run on full autopilot instead of having to monitor market rates all the time. (Yes there's some handwaving involved as you'd have to throttle the mining rigs based on the amount of solar power available at the time). It becomes a tradeoff between freedom and profit. Yes, this generates less profit than pro-active mining but then they can do something completely different at the same time. The point I'm trying to make is that if you can make PhoNE gathering a fully automated side-gig bolted on to your main ship then you can still get on with what you want to do in life and make some additional money on the side without thinking about it. This is why the private yachts etc would be in to PhoNE gathering too. As a potential bonus, vanity sails could be made that light up in certain ways or can filter out parts of the visible spectrum as well to make the cruising experience even more enjoyable.

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OP here. This is my own best answer after thinking about this as much as I could. I don't think this is very solid, and I want to compare it to whatever else the community comes up with.

PhoNE isn't perfectly fungible: it improves when many sources are combined.

If PhoNE is really a cosmos-wide recycling system, then naturally its effects are best produced when different stars' output is mixed, as they would be (at very low concentrations) in deep space. You can sell 100 units from star A or star B for \$100, but 50 units from each, combined in your vehicle's processing facility, makes 100 units of a higher-grade PhoNE that sells for \$110. And perhaps 25 units from four different stars might make enough to sell for a combined \$120.

So, first off, clearly another large industrial market opens up: interstellar freighters that run from system to system, picking up batteries from the major producers' static sails, and combining them at the point of sale. The buyer then grades the finished product, which might be more or less pure based on which stars exactly it came from, before offering a price.

But now there's also value in going out and exploring undeveloped systems — because that's even more sources to combine with, and possibly sources for future mining expansion if some stars there have much better stuff. What yachters do, and what the debt-relief agencies tell people to do, is to cover a swathe of the distant galaxy, get samples, and return in the hopes that they've made something good enough to sell. And perhaps it's still a poor investment even then, what with the presence of industrial mixing operations. But the former succeed because they have experience finding good sources, and the latter succeed mostly if they get lucky (no one said debt-relief agencies weren't predatory). Think experienced prospectors vs. the everyman in an old-school gold rush, with both competing against actual large mining firms.

Where I'm not confident here is whether it'd really be worth enough to do this by yourself on reasonable timescales. Exploring the galaxy is very slow, and this seems like a recipe for spending years out in the void in the hopes of maybe squeezing out slightly more money from the higher-grade PhoNE than the industrial mixers. So I'm not convinced it's the cleanest solution.

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  • $\begingroup$ Hmmm. While the name of the stuff says information, the underlying laws should be pure physics, unless the stars in your universe are sentient (then PhoNE is the aftermath of their thoughts, of course these should be different both by sentience level, mood, attitude to humans if they really notice someone around, even personality). But if stars are not sentient, the laws should be uniform, so that PhoNE harvested from star A should be identical to PhoNE gathered from its almost exact duplicate on the other end of the universe. While star sentience is plot stuff, physics should be complied to. $\endgroup$
    – Vesper
    Commented Nov 28, 2023 at 15:39
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PhoNe is non-fungible information

If entropy is disorder or noise, then negentropy is order or information. It is stored as qubits in exa-scale memory devices. As qubits can't really be copied they need to be "mined" anew, but the energy density is unfathomable. It allows you to rearrange atoms to make large amounts of useful materials directly from asteroids(or anything you want to recycle) without need to supply additional energy. Just entangle the rock with a quantum computer and load the right PhoNe into it. The concept of energy itself is now obsolete.

It makes FTL itself easy, otherwise ships would need huge tanks of fickle antimatter.

However, and there's the issue, PhoNe must be imprinted with specific recipe for each output/process when it is made. To get monocrystal metal beams needs different PhoNe than to make beer.

Maybe someone will figure out the recipe to produce specific kind of PhoNe to recycle whole universe. It's called paperclip maximizer problem. Nobody has any idea what paperclips are. Some kind of vermin? But even without that there are all kinds of illicit substances you are forbidden to produce PhoNe for, plus vast grey area of all kinds of PhoNy stuff that is not available wholesale. That's where artisans and bespoke producers come in.

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Taxes.

The government(s) put a hefty sales tax on PhoNE. Why? Perhaps when that stuff was new, it was causing economic shifts. Any competing technologies for creating and maintaining nanotechnology were in danger of being made obsolete and the companies that specialized in them saw their stock prices plummet. Whole star systems that built their economies around exporting pre-PhoNE nanomachinery were heading towards economic collapse. A development which the politicians (or rather their wealthy donors) wanted to prevent or at least slow down.

So they started taxing that stuff. Their plan failed and it still became the commodity it is today. But the PhoNE tax is now an important point in the government budget they can't just remove without creating a huge deficit. So it stays.

But if you harvest it yourself, then you don't need to pay a sale tax. So despite lacking the economies of scale and the initial investment, harvesting it yourself can still be a way to save some money.

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