Lensman Universe Drop Shafts

There’s an interesting worldbuilding detail in Edward E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series. They’ve got this technology of “inertialessness”, which is what allows them to go faster than light, but it also has domestic uses—elevators have been replaced by open drop shafts that you fall down, inertialess, very quickly and completely safely (because “inertialess collisions cannot even be felt”). (He doesn’t say how the UP shafts work, but I’m guessing artificial gravity pointing up, since they have artificial gravity in other contexts.)

I’m not going to try to explain “inertialessness”. He’s fairly specific about how it behaves, and of course it’s not how the real universe behaves. But he’s pretty good about having the defined behavior remain consistent and control what can and can’t be done in various situations.

Most of the information on drop shafts is in two books, the actual first book and the second later prequel. (No, I don’t really expect that to make sense to anybody not already familiar with the series. But I don’t expect this article to be of any interest to people not already familiar with the series, either.)

I don’t think Smith ever actually calls them “drop shafts”, that’s a later term used in the field, but just “shaft” is rather too broad so I’m using the later term. Also I’m applying it to the ones going UP as well as those going DOWN.

Samms cut off; and, after a brief exchange of thought with Kinnison, went out into the hall and along it to the “DOWN” shaft. There going free, he stepped through a doorless, unguarded archway into over a thousand feet of air. Although it was long after conventional office hours the shaft was still fairly busy, but that made no difference—inertialess collisions cannot even be felt. He bulleted downward to the sixth floor, where he brought himself to an instantaneous halt.

First Lensman, chapter 4

So; we know there are separate “DOWN” and “UP” shafts. We know that there is no door or other guard across the archway to the shaft, which is over 1000 feet tall. We know that when Samms reaches his destination (the 6th floor) he brings himself to an instantaneous halt.

Clearly this shaft is not regarded as any danger to anybody; it has no door, no guards of any kind. (Presumably the safety issues are things like backup power for the Bergenholm that keeps the interior of the shaft inertialess, which are not visible in descriptions of using the shafts. Plus making sure the Bergenholm field and the gravity don’t reach outside the shaft.)

I’m a little unclear about the phrase “There going free”. That seems to suggests that it’s something Samms does, rather than something that happens to anybody who steps through that archway. It could be that everybody wears portable neutralizers (as Lensmen do in their armor, as described multiple places in Galactic Patrol), but it seems to me unwise to count on people not walking into the shaft without their neutralizer, plus there could be issues with people panicking and failing to turn theirs on. Also, this scene can’t be that long after Civilization first gets the Bergenholm working at all; it’s still a new technology in this scene (no precise time since the Nevian incident is given, but as I read the text a few years seems like a reasonable estimate).

It seems like the failure possibilities would be far fewer if inertia is neutralized within the shaft by mechanisms in the building, rather than by something each user has to carry and control. The phrase bothering me isn’t utterly incompatible with that, I don’t think.

Now, how fast would people be moving in these shafts? The DOWN shaft could simply work by gravity; in the free state, any object instantaneously acquires the speed that balances the forces on it against the resistance it encounters (air resistance in the shaft in this case).

The next paragraph of the book has another useful tidbit. It says “skirts went out, as office dress, when up-and-down open-shaft velocities of a hundred or so miles per hour replaced elevators”. That gives us a rough minimum speed of 100 miles per hour, and tells us the up and down shafts run at about the same speeds. (There’s a nasty question here. Is the air in the shaft free? If so, does it not resist the falling bodies at all? If that is the case at what velocity do the bodies then fall? But clearly, the air molecules push dresses around, so they’re not free, for whatever reason, so the velocity is limited. But in that case, hair as well as skirts should be subjected to 100 mile per hour winds, so styles there might also change.)

That’s in the ballpark for the terminal velocity of a human falling through atmosphere, which ought to be the speed that a free human in a 1 gee field in normal atmosphere would instantly achieve.

Now, I’m not clear how reliably I could spot the 6th floor coming a few feet from my face when I was moving at 100 miles per hour, or how reliably I could grab something to brake myself at just the right moment. But if there are many vertical rails around the edges of the shaft, say, one could grab one early and slow without stopping by gripping it lightly.

The UP shaft can’t of course work by gravity. I would argue that it would be highly advantageous for it to have the same upward force on users that the DOWN shaft has downward force, since otherwise you’d have to develop different sets of habits for the up and down shafts, which seems undesirable. (Not a safety issue though; if the space inside the shaft is all free, there’s nothing any user can do to cause accidental injury in the shaft. It might be embarrassing to miss your floor and end up at the bottom, but it won’t injure you or anyone else). So, since we know they have artificial gravity, let’s presume that the UP shaft has a 1 gee upward force, or at least that it matches the downward force in the DOWN shaft.

There’s some more information in Galactic Patrol. There’s a detailed description of the graduating class of Lensmen marching into the shaft and hitting bottom precisely on a beat of the march and continuing to march out of the shaft.

In perfect alignment and cadence the little column marched down the hall. In their path yawned the shaft—a vertical pit some twenty feet square extending from main floor to roof of the Hall, more than a thousand sheer feet of unobstructed air, cleared now of all traffic by flaring red lights. Five left heels clicked sharply, simultaneously upon the lip of the stupendous abyss. Five right legs swept out into emptiness. Five right hands snapped to belts and five bodies, rigidly erect, arrowed downward at such an appalling velocity that to unpractised vision they simply vanished.

Six-tenths of a second later, precisely upon a beat of the stirring march, those ten heels struck the main floor of Wentworth Hall, but not with a click. Dropping with a velocity of almost two thousand feet per second though they were at the instant of impact, yet those five husky bodies came from full speed to an instantaneous, shockless, effortless halt at contact, for the drop had been made under complete neutralization of inertia—“free,” in space parlance. Inertia restored, the march was resumed—or rather continued—in perfect time with the band.

Galactic Patrol, chapter 1

(2000 feet per second is 1364 miles per hour.)

This, of course, is not ordinary civilian use of the drop shaft. Note that for this ceremony it was cleared of all other traffic.

The detail of the cadets’ right hands snapping to their belts is interesting. Is that supposed to indicate they are manipulating some control that relates to the shaft? Of course, since this is not the ordinary use of that shaft, they may be doing something special that isn’t part of normal use.

We don’t know how long after First Lensman this book is set, but probably hundreds of years, so the “normal” configuration of drop shafts may well be different now than it was back then.

Either the artificial gravity in the shaft is set to a much higher setting than 1 gee for this ceremony, or perhaps the cadets are using thrusters or something to force themselves down, triggering them with their right hands at their belts. Maybe they are using thrusters to force themselves down because the DOWN shaft doesn’t have artificial gravity, only the UP shaft?

At least they don’t have to see their floor coming and stop themselves, since they’re going to the bottom. Even Lensmen might have trouble reacting fast enough to something going over 1000 miles per hour just a few feet from their face!

As usual, when one keeps poking at world-building, little issues turn up here and there.

Regretting Photographs not Taken

Mike Johnston of The Online Photographer (a site I’ve followed for years) has lately acquired a side gig writing occasional articles about photography for The New Yorker. The latest one, The Secret Art of the Family Photo, has sparked interesting conversation both at TOP and at Ann Althouse’s blog.

The questions of what a good family photo is, what purposes it serves, and how that changes as the photo ages, are interesting (or at least should be) to nearly all photographers and many families, it seems to me.

One way I approach thinking about what personal photos I should take is to look back at my old photos and see what I especially value, and what I miss (I have my own photos going back to 1962, and my mother’s further yet). (Note that this is about “family” photos, snapshots for the photographer or the immediate family; art, or documentary work for a larger audience, is another barrel of fish entirely.)

Places I Lived

Specific regrets in this area include the two places we lived in Zurich in 1966-67 (I have some interiors from one of them, as background to photographing us there), college dorms and dorm rooms, the interior of my Bozo Bus apartment, and my first apartment in St. Paul.

I do have some good pictures of the house my parents were in from 1963 until the 21st century, many of them from when Barbara was preparing to sell it, but some earlier too. I have at least a few before the wood siding was replaced, too.

I even have a couple of old pictures (plus modern ones I went back for) showing the house we rented from the college our first 3 years in town (across from the Junior High, a corner duplex we shared with the Jenkins).

Places I Spent Time

I’d like more from the Carleton computer center, though I have a few. The Highschool computer center I have more of, because I hung out there most of my free periods for 3 years.

I did a fair amount of photography around Northfield and around the Carleton Campus, which is nice to have.

Places I Worked

This is a subset of “Places I Spent Time,” of course.

I’d like photos of the Dubuque Telegraph Herald, and the DEC office in Bloomington. I’ve got some of Dec’s Marlborough facility where I worked (MRO1), including some interiors (cameras were banned, but I got authorized to bring mine in to take some photos for a presentation to salesmen).

I’d like photos of the various desks I had, at various jobs, with my stuff.

I can often find modern, or even period, photos of the buildings for these categories. Sometimes they’re annoyingly different from what I remember. I always prefer photos from the time I was there.

Schools

I mostly don’t have pictures of schools. I found a picture of the high-school the other day, while scanning for our 50th class reunion, and din’t much care for it. The building is very flat and not interesting, is part of it, and nothing important happened outside it for me. But the old building at Washington school has been torn down, and I regret not having a picture of it (I was there for 1st and 2nd grade plus one summer, not sure which, for a science summer program).

No pictures at all of Longfellow, where I was bussed across town to do 3rd grade.

I did a bit better at college, partly because I was shooting for the Alumni Publications Office, and partly just because I was shooting a lot while I was there. I have pictures of the brand new Music and Drama center that they just now tearing down, which I really need to get scanned.

I don’t have much for photos from the Kung Fu class I was in (a roll or two of an aborted project towards a book on Southern Praying Mantis Kung Fu that I was going to illustrate; mostly details). No shots of the other students there or the instructors I worked with. Again, I was busy doing other stuff, not really free to take photos. (I do have the people who got me into the class, and others they got into the class, from social photos outside the studio).

Places I Visited

For big trips, I have done fairly well here. Early on I couldn’t afford enough film and processing, so everything is a bit thin, but from 9th grade on that wasn’t a useful excuse any more. (B&W film that I processed myself was about a penny a frame then; the paper for big prints cost enough to notice, but little snapshot prints didn’t use up that much.)

When I knew I was passing through a place because it was interesting, I took pictures to remember, but when it was my ordinary place to be, I often didn’t (and have pictures mostly by luck, interiors as background to something involving people).

People

I’ve generally done fairly well on documenting people that I saw much of. Same for pets, who are not precisely people, but in terms of photographic regret act about the same.

Things

My particular areas of interest, computers and photography, lead to my working with or owning some interesting equipment.

I don’t have pictures of the IBM !401 I was first paid for programming, or the PDP-8/L that Jeff Hoskins and I wrote the ultimate version of the “Target” game for (which contributed to many breakages of the joystick), or the PDP-11/20 that was my first PDP-11.

I do have some shots of the PDP-8/I, the first non-decimal computer I programmed (I was never paid for programming that one). My first exposure to octal, and to using the actual bit patterns; the IBM 1620 and 1401 were of course binary at the hardware level, but memory was organized in decimal digits (or full characters), and you never really needed to look beneath that to understand what you were doing; decoding the console lights digit by digit was easy.

I don’t have pictures of my Miranda Sensorex, or my mother’s Bolsey 35, or the Leica M3 I owned in college, or the Asahi Pentax Spotmatic system that I traded the Miranda for.

I have pictures of many later cameras, from when I sold them on ebay.

For cameras in particular (more than computers), I want photos of my camera; good photos of that exact model are much better than nothing, but are not entirely satisfactory.

I don’t particularly regret not having photos of bottles of particularly good wine (or cognac). It might be useful to have better written notes, but the field has changed so much that what I learned back when wouldn’t be much use now anyway (or, as at the time, it would be stuff I couldn’t afford; I’ve tasted pre-pyloxera port).

Events

I’ve done pretty well with documenting SF conventions I was at. But I have no photos from things like the Dragaera gaming sessions I was at, or Mike Ford’s magical 17th century gaming group. I was doing that thing where I was present in the moment (and, to be fair, also worrying about disrupting or delaying the games), and I definitely regret it.

I don’t miss snapshots from the Yes or Emerson Lake and Palmer concerts I was at early on. I did get photos from the 1991 Cropredy Festival we were at (with backstage passes), and I don’t find myself going back to them very often. Of course finding good photos of those groups performing is easy, but I don’t go around collecting them or even looking at them much, except by chance.

Transportation

I mostly don’t regret not having photos of my cars (or I have one where it’s the background for some people).

I don’t have photos from the 1958 Atlantic crossing (by ship), or the 1966 or 1967 crossings (on the SS France). I may have Mary’s photos in a box I haven’t looked at yet, I should check; hadn’t thought of that before. I do have pictures of the VC-10 we flew to Entebbe on, but no pictures of the other interesting airplanes I’ve been on (Caravelle, Comet, DC-3, Constellation, plus “ordinary” things like the 707 and DC-8). I dig out and even post the VC-10 photo periodically, so the others would probably mean something to me also.

I took photos at the shuttle launch we saw (from public access, so far away). Don’t think I’ve scanned or made any prints of them, but they weren’t much good, we were too far away for photography really. I’m glad I was there, and maybe should check the photos again but I don’t think they matter much.

Pulp Magazines

Just read Keith Alan Deutsch’s introduction to The Black Lizard Big Book of Black Mask Stories (which I got from the library because it’s the only thing they had with a story by Carroll John Daly, who was name-checked next to Dashiel Hammett in Lloyd Arthur Eshbach’s introduction to Doc Smith’s Have Trenchcoat–Will Travel (Advent Press, April 2001)).

He talks a lot about mystery pulps, and other early pulps, and pulp-adjacent things and things that came out of the pulps (like Argosy).

And after a while I started noticing familiar names rolling by. Street & Smith Publications, Lurton Blassingame, Kurt Siodmak, the aforementioned Argosy (which, from 1896, is said to be the first true pulp magazine).

Then I started to notice the conspicuous absence of any reference to science fiction. The pulp tradition pre-dates science fiction of course, and mysteries have been a bigger market than science fiction most of my life (not sure it’s true today; at least in movies, where mysteries haven’t caught on as well as in books, and where sf has caught on amazingly well). And this introduction is to a collection of mystery stories. Still, there was lots of reference to western stories as a genre, and even a few to railroad stories (Railroad magazine was the first special-interest pulp magazine starting in the 1880s, and still making money in the late 1970s).

Which brings me to the next-to-last paragraph of his introduction, in which he exudes pride over Black Mask Magazine being one of only three titles from the pulp fiction collections of the Library of Congress deemed “extremely rare and valuable” contributions to the history of American culture, and transferred to the Rare Books and Special Collections Division of the library.

The other two were Amazing Stories and Weird Tales. I feel better now.

Meatloaf

My mother made a great meatloaf. Later, when needing a recipe, we found a good one in one of our cookbooks, which wasn’t that much like my mother’s.

Since then, I’ve been playing around. Made my latest iteration last night; this seems to capture most of the virtues of both of its ancestors (including being tremendously easy to make).

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Mix by hand in a large bowl:

  • 2lb ground beef
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • 1C milk
  • 1C Pepperidge Farm bread crumbs
  • 2 eggs
  • 1T Worcestershire sauce
  • 1t salt
  • 2t pepper (30 grinds on my mill)
  • 1t fennel seed
  • 1t dried thyme

Form into a loaf, perhaps a long one for this size. It will stand freely in a shallow pan (needs something to catch the drippings, don’t do it on a flat sheet!). It cooks fine in a loaf pan, but this size is big for one loaf pan and small for two.

Cook until done (interior temperature 160°F). Let sit a bit, slice, eat. Took over an hour, but the exact shape of loaf, and how open the pan is, will make a big difference.

Excellent as a leftover in sandwiches.

Of course this is not at all a precise sort of recipe. The loaf is a more useful size with 1.5lb of beef, in which case probably just one egg.

If you’re using unseasoned bread crumbs, you’ll probably want to add a bunch of herbs, and probably more salt also.

Many people put ketchup in or on (or both) meatloaf. If you like it that way, this may not be the recipe for you; this is intended to eat straight, and the flavor would be overwhelmed by ketchup.

Snack Mix

Couple of years late, but finding things on Facebook is horribly unreliable, so I thought I’d better put it here.

Made with stuff from Trader Joe’s.

Combine equal parts by weight of Thai chili lime almonds, roasted salted pumpkin seeds, pistachio nutmeats, and dried cranberries. Add half that weight of oat bran sesame sticks (those were from Cub come to think of it) and half that weight of crystallized ginger (cut down to more suitable size pieces), and a handful or two of raw walnut pieces. Mix well.

None of the pre-mixes I was seeing were really doing it for me, so I finally started mixing my own. This is obviously high calorie density, it would almost work as a real trail mix where that’s a feature rather than something to be careful about. I do it with the kitchen scale, but you can just guesstimate from bag weight, at least if nobody is stealing from the bags of each ingredient. Tumbling the Rubbermaid container it half-fills mixes it quite quickly without doing much damage.