Time for the Stars

Recently an acquaintance of mine asked the hive mind for examples of short stories that featured the time-dilating effect of traveling near the speed of light. Ideally the story would also feature one element where that rule is broken.

I immediately forgot the “short story” requirement and recommended Time for the Stars, a Young Adult novel by Robert Heinlein. It is exactly about that; it even takes a break for a lecture on time dilation, complete with the equation I call the “Einstein fudge factor” carefully typeset in the narrative.

I happen to have recently been reunited with a copy of that novel, one I received as part of a box set one fine Christmas morning in the early 1970’s. There were a couple of things I particularly remembered about that story, so I decided to give it a read once more after all these years.

The part of the story that Heinlein got the most pleasure from, I believe, is an organization called the Long Range Foundation, or LRF. They were endowed to pursue pie-in-the-sky research with no hope of commercial reward in any reasonable time frame. The kind of research that corporations and event governments can’t justify.

It turns out, however, that taking the long view can be embarrassingly profitable over decades and even centuries, and the LRF is constantly looking for deeper holes to dump their giant piles of cash into. One of those holes is interstellar travel. (They are already gushing cash from developing technology to allow travel all over the solar system.)

So they build a bunch of giant spaceships to go out and explore nearby star systems. They don’t actually expect any of those ships to ever make it back home, so they need a way for them to keep in touch. Which brings us to another one of their projects.

Pat and Tom are twins, the youngest children of a family over the quota for number of children (the Earth is staggering under the weight of five billion occupants). The LRF offers them a bit of cash to participate in a study. While they think they are cheating on a test, they are actually confirming that they are psychically linked.

This linkage is not bound by relativity and does not diminish with distance. The LRF gathers up all the psychic-twin pairs it can and loads up their giant spaceships (called Torch Ships) with half of each pair, several teams per ship. Now, even should the spaceships never return to the home world, the information they gather will.

The dynamic between the brothers is interesting, as they jockey for which will see the stars and which will stay home. One of the moments in the book that stuck with me all these years was when the ship’s doctor points out that Tom really doesn’t like his brother at all.

So Tom’s Torch Ship, the Lewis and Clark (or Elsie for short) flies away, and the time shift between the ship and Earth gradually accelerates. Communication is more and more difficult as the brains of the pair work at different speeds. Finally there is a period of isolation — a few weeks on the ship, and many years back home. Not all the psychic pairs can reconnect after such a long break, and a lot happens on Earth during that time each jump.

Meanwhile, science is trying to recreate itself to allow the concept of simultaneity, which relativity pretty thoroughly ruled out. It’s quite a long range sort of project.

Decades pass on Earth, months and then years pass on the ship.

Small Spoiler: Disasters happen, friends die — including the people in charge of helping everyone get along— and morale among the survivors becomes very low.

Occasionally, especially during disasters, I had to smile at the casual 1950’s-era sexism, and while the crew is racially diverse without making a big deal about it, there is a Wise Old Negro. I hadn’t noticed that stuff last time I read the story. Also, there was a bit of recklessness on the part of the crew when it came to exploring strange worlds. Plague sucks.

Big Spoiler: The most striking thing about the story is how it ends. Once physics introduced the concept of “irrelevance” — the idea that some things were not bound by relativity but existed outside that framework — work began to harness that phenomenon. After one particularly bad disaster, the Elsie is orbiting a planet and is told to stand by and wait for a rendezvous. A faster-than-light ship arrives shortly thereafter, straight from Earth. The install a device on Elsie and say that they will be returning to Earth. This is met with great joy among the remaining crew.

“When will we get there?” Tom asks.

“I thought we’d wait until after lunch, if that’s all right,” is the answer. Or something like that. Push a button, you’re home again. No fuss.

They return to Earth little more than a curiosity, Rip Van Winkles rendered suddenly and absolutely obsolete. Already faster-than-light ships have far eclipsed what had taken the Torch ships decades to accomplish. That the new technology could not have happened without their sacrifice is not much of a solace. And women, apparently, no longer wear hats, which was unthinkable when Tom left Earth.

There is a happy ending, at least for Tom; others of the crew have highly specialized skills that just don’t matter anymore. At least they have a few decades of back pay that’s been earning interest all this time. After all, legend has it that Einstein said compound interest is the most powerful force in the universe.

Note: if you use the above links to buy this book (or these silly shoes), I get a kickback.

My 2018 Resolutions

Last year I made several ambitious-but-attainable resolutions. I failed at all of them.

For 2018, my goal is much simpler: do better at everything than I did in 2017. The bar is pretty low.

Fun With NORAD

The United States has a massive array of detection equipment all around the world, watching with never-blinking (we hope) vigilance to detect attacks on the US or our allies. Each year that massive network is also put to the much-more-fun purpose of tracking Santa Claus as he makes his way around the world.

The official tracking site is here, and now sports a fun and interactive way to watch the jolly elf’s progress. What a great opportunity to sit down with youngsters over a globe or an atlas and find Santa’s current location, tracking him over places the kid has heard of but may not appreciate as actual places on Earth. What a fun way to have a little geography lesson!

While you’re at it, you might enjoy reading about how this all started. NPR has a short article about how the Continental Air Command got into the Santa-tracking business. It all started with a red phone ringing on the desk of a man whose job it was to be the first to know if we were under attack. A red phone whose number was top secret. It’s a fun story.

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Rober Mueller is Getting Slammed – Why?

Over the last couple of weeks, the Republicans in power have launched a massive campaign to discredit special prosecutor Robert Mueller. The Trump administration, the Republican establishment, and Fox News have started a non-stop “nothing to see here” feedback loop. The complaints they are throwing around are not new; Watergate and Whitewater investigators heard the same things.

The Democrats spent a year complaining about Kenneth Starr, and the complaints about Archibald Cox (Watergate) are even more similar to what we are hearing today. Neither party is above suppressing the truth for its own purposes. Notably, in both those examples impeachment proceedings followed.

So, maybe “Why?” is not the interesting question. Maybe it’s “Why now?” Why has the bashing been turned up to eleven? Mueller’s investigation is moving with historical quickness — after Manafort and Papadopolous turned, I thought we wouldn’t hear more before January, using past investigations as a guide. But even bigger news has followed, and things are now very close to the White House. So, “why now” might be because the Trump administration and their Republican apologists realize that there is something even bigger coming, and they want to get ahead of it, to rally the party faithful ahead of some damning news. If they already know impeachment is in the wind, getting the party to close around a few points of resistance makes sense.

Perhaps.

It’s also possible that Trump and his administration have nothing to hide. Perhaps they realize that their own hound dog, Kenneth Starr, was allowed to expand the Whitewater investigation into realms that had absolutely nothing to do with the original charges, fruitlessly looking under rock after rock, until they finally caught the president not wanting his wife to find out he’d gotten BJ’s in the oval office. Even then it wouldn’t have amounted to anything, but Slick Willy was too slick for his own good, and tried to play word games with his questioners.

When looking for infractions on that scale, you know that Trump — the pussy-grabber and philanderer and liar and serial bankruptcy artist — will trip over something.

So is the Republican message machine afraid of the truth, or are they afraid the Democrats are paying them back for Starr? My guess is that there is an ugly truth coming, and they are girding for a fight that threatens the very relevance of their party. But it may be they’re just about to reap what they have sown. Either way, I don’t have a great deal of sympathy for them.

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“I haven’t … since I got married.”

I had a quiet chuckle the other day when I thought to myself, “I haven’t showered since I got married.” Immediately I came up with several other personal-hygiene-related phrases I’d had a chance to use: “I haven’t brushed my teeth since I got married.”

But what of other parts of my life? It seems like there should be plenty of opportunities for a newlywed to find humor with the phrase. “I haven’t eaten since I got married” only lasted a short time for me, but would have been pretty good.

I get the feeling that I’m missing some pretty good ones. Any thoughts from the bloggcomm?

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So, I’m Married Now

Yep, my best friend in the whole world, my sweetie, my soul mate and I tied the knot today. I’m more than a little pleased by that.

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Journalistic Bias: Not What, but When

There is a curve when it comes to shocking news about a candidate for office. For a couple of weeks after the damning revelations come out, the candidate takes a hit. Then, gradually, the candidate’s numbers recover. We’re seeing that right now with Roy Moore in Alabama. Voters have had time to rationalize voting for someone they would never let near their own daughters.

We’ve seen the curve with candidates from both parties in the past, from a gleefully corrupt Democrat in Louisiana who had time to charm his way out of the doghouse to a presidential candidate who went down to perfectly-timed accusations.

I think this curve is pretty well-known by now. I’ve heard of it, and I’m the last to hear about anything.

So imagine you’re the editor of the Washington Post. You have an explosive story about a candidate in an election of great importance. That election is six weeks away. The story is ready to go — facts checked, sources cross-referenced and background-checked. It’s legit.

I think it’s safe to say the editors of the Washington Post are not big supporters of the Republican Party in its current incarnation. So if you are an editor at The Post who decides when to run this huge piece, there will be a natural temptation to run it at the most damaging time possible for Moore. There would be a temptation to sit on the story for a couple of weeks, to put the sweet spot of the damage curve right on election day.

The Washington Post did not do that. There’s no way to tell if the timing of the story was based on journalistic integrity or incompetence, but they did not time the story for maximum electoral impact. I think that means something.

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