Repent In Time; The reactionless cat drive

View 705 Saturday, December 17, 2011

I spent most of the day moping about thinking of scenes, a bit of time on administrative matters, and then took Roberta out on a date, a nice dinner in a steak house and a movie, IN TIME, I’ve been distracted lately, and I didn’t pay much attention to the trailers for IN TIME on the TV, but as soon as the movie started I wondered if there would be credits for Harlan Ellison and his “Repent, Harlequin, Said the TickTock Man.” On coming home I found on line that Harlan had initiated a law suit, but after watching the picture, settled the suit, so far as I can see without any claims. One of these days I’ll ask Harlan why: it would seem clear to me that under Writers Guild rules Harlan has some claim, at the very least to credit for some ideas in the picture.

Anyway, there was a period in the picture when I thought I didn’t like it, but I got past that and was able to enjoy the story and the acting. As is usual for me I was over-analytic. My main criticism of stories of this kind in which the super rich control everything is that they never have trouble finding loyal minions. There never was a mad scientist who didn’t have a crew of henchmen who followed every stupid order given, and the Timekeeper – TickTockMan – is very loyal to the system. He is clearly derived from Victor Hugo’s Javert more than Harlan’s TickTockMan, but I would be willing to argue the case that Harlan deserves partial credit for the character as well as the Timekeeper title and position. In any event, the social system requires police loyal to it, and there are no obvious reasons for their loyalty given in the film. There seldom is in any of those movies: the mad scientist always has loyal henchmen, and fanatic servants, and enormous resources, but it always risking all that for more on some hare-brained scheme. That doesn’t happen here, but the ostentatious discrepancy between the very rich and everyone else – including their hotel clerks, bodyguards, valets, secretaries – leaves one wondering why the only people with weapons generally employ them in the service of their masters.

But enough quibbling. I enjoyed the movie.

And I’m still moping about collecting scenes for Anvil.



I had this amusing exchange of mail:

Your words are finding a wide audience, and an alternative to the Dean Drive –

Jerry –

When I sent my sister a link to your teleporting cat story, she found that the story had already started traveling around the Interwebs. Since the person who reposted it did not include a link to your site, I took the liberty of adding a link and vouching for your character. If you wish to see it, here is a link to that exchange:

My working theory about the cat’s ability to teleport is that it simply willed itself in the direction of the safe harbor (the Captain’s chest). Based on that theory, I have developed a credible alternative to the Dean Drive. By the way, my wife said I shouldn’t share the following idea with you because it would end up in one of your stories. I doubt that very much, but if it should happen, you may have it with my blessings. But if you patent an actual working mechanism or a derivative, I get a cut of the royalties and my name goes on the patent with yours. <grin>

Proof of Concept Experiment Design for Dean Drive Alternative: Build a cradle that has at one end a chair for the astronaut/sacrificial victim, and at the other a simple framework that supports a hook. Distance from the couch should be slightly more than double the astronaut’s arms reach. The cradle should be designed to support a significant amount of compression before failing gracefully. (In other words, it should bend under excessive load and not snap off.)

Install the cradle into a vessel, anchoring firmly onto the strongest structural framework available. Place the vessel into at least Low Earth Orbit so microgravity is available. Along with the cradle, launch the astronaut, a cat, and a harness to suspend the cat from the hook at the driving end of the cradle. I suggest placing the cradle relatively near sick bay, or at least a first aid kit for ease of treating any injuries sustained by the astronaut. The cradle should preferably be aligned along the overall vessel’s central axis of mass. Again, care should be taken to ensure that the cradle is firmly mounted to the vessel’s strongest internal framework.

Orient the vehicle so the driving (cat) end of the cradle is pointed AWAY from the intended post-cat-activation direction of flight. Using the vessel’s ordinary means of propulsion (assumed for this experiment to be either a rocket, ion thruster, or similar reaction engine), place the vessel under a sufficient amount of acceleration that the cat does not experience microgravity. This initial baseline acceleration should be along the line between the astronaut station and the cat station, towards the cat.

Place the astronaut in the chair and the cat in the harness. While the astronaut holds the cat at arms’ length, attach the hook to the cat’s harness and inspect all fastenings for proper attachment and locking. This completes assembly of the Feline Drive unit.

Once all other flight personnel have fastened themselves into their seats and all safety checks are complete, turn off the vessel’s ordinary propulsion system. Once acceleration ceases, take inertial readings to verify velocity and direction, then instruct the astronaut to release the cat and move his/her arms into a rest position in the chair. (Care should be taken that the release of the cat does not impart to the cat any additional thrust vectors. If the cat rebounds into the hook area of the cat station, it may consider that area to be a safe harbor, negating the purpose of the experiment.) If the experiment design is followed adequately, the cat will be dangling by the harness in microgravity.

Shortly after the cat recognizes that it is floating, the designer predicts that the cat will identify the astronaut’s chest as a desired landing zone (either from a desire for safety or a desire for revenge). Once this identification is made, the cat is expected to accelerate itself toward the astronaut’s chest at maximum speed by main force of will. The Feline Drive’s hook and harness will transfer the cat’s own acceleration to the drive unit’s mountings to the vessel’s framework, which in turn will effect the acceleration of the vessel. This acceleration should be readily detectible by the inertial sensors.

If this initial experiment is successful, a variety of further experiments should be performed to determine how much acceleration a Feline Drive can produce and for what length of time, whether multiple Feline Drive units operating simultaneously can increase acceleration, and whether other factors can increase acceleration. This last alternative presents an interesting possibility for an additional experiment that could validate the Feline Drive, if the initial experiment fails.

For this alternative experiment, add an additional station that extends the cradle forward from the cat hook station. In the new station, affix a hook and a large dog in a harness. (Sable might be interested in applying for the job.) Place a removable blind between the dog station and the cat station. (Care should be taken to ensure that the cat never sees the dog.) If the initial exposure to microgravity does not cause the cat to will itself into acceleration, the astronaut pulls a control that drops the barrier between the dog station and the cat station. (Care should be taken to ensure that the cat sees the astronaut take the action that drops the barrier.) The sudden appearance of the dog should cause the cat to consider the astronaut as both safe harbor (away from the dog) and as an essential target for revenge, thus maximizing the cat’s focus of will to move toward the astronaut. In short, the astronaut causing the sudden appearance of the dog is expected to crystallize the cat’s attitude into the incontrovertible belief that, in microgravity, "The enemy’s chest is down."

Once the Feline Drive concept is validated, it is predicted that additional experimentation can be designed that will uncover the principles underlying the force of will. Further research along those lines should determine whether it is possible to produce an inorganic Feline Drive equivalent.

–Gary P.

I replied “You’re quite mad, aren’t you?”

To which he replied

Interesting question. If I were truly mad, how would I know?

Fortunately you’re not the first to wonder that about me. Been tested.

Not mad. Don’t even have to take meds. Well, not for *that* sort of thing at least. I just work as a government contractor in IT, so I have a lot of creativity that doesn’t get used at work. I spend the bulk of my time helping pave the way for replacing a mission-critical, absolutely essential, enterprise data collection app that is written in FoxPro 2.6 for DOS. And once we get the data out of the DBFs and into a real database (SQL Server 2000, running on a Win2K server), the architect over that side of things determined many years ago that we would not have SQL Server enforce our primary key/foreign key relationships because that would slow things down too much. Better to do all referential integrity in the code, after all. So we have around 500 tables with a total of 12 foreign key relationships defined in the DB, which all exist within the scope of 5 tables. All of the other hundreds of relationships that exist are maintained solely in code. Or they’re supposed to. I’m not aware that we actually have any way to test that assumption.

I enjoy thinking through these kinds of intellectual thought experiments. The way I figure it is, I will either come up with a brilliant idea that makes me a fortune, or else I’ll win an Ig Noble.

Or become a character in a Discworld novel. And none of those seem like really bad outcomes. After all, I work as a government contractor in IT. Occasionally these kind of flashes of twisted inspiration have resulted in useful ideas that have been implemented at work. But none of them have involved felines.

So I gather that you don’t think the Feline Drive would work? Or were your objections based more on opposition to gratuitous cruelty to astronauts? I suppose that would be valid. Perhaps we could design around that (flak vest or some such), but I am concerned that anything that might cause a cat to think its desire for revenge could be thwarted puts the whole project at risk. After all, I’ve never met anything that can take a more creative approach to revenge than a cat, and they generally seem willing to take the long view towards getting it. Since we want the cat to use its unorthodox locomotion ability, we would not want to give the cat any idea that it would not be able to cause maximum harm at that instant, otherwise it might put off attaching itself to the astronaut.

I realized while writing this that while you said "teleporting" I had jumped to the conclusion that it was most likely to be a reactionless drive rather than teleporting. I have seen cats and dogs who levitate onto the furniture. They always jumped, but never seemed to put enough effort into it to achieve that altitude they reached. One cat of my acquaintance also never seemed to have the velocity he needed to reach that altitude. I never saw him and his brother both jump onto something at the same time so I had no external velocity to gauge against, but he *always* looked like he was moving a little too slowly for the altitude he needed to reach. Either way, the experiment I outlined would identify if the cat was moving by means of teleportation or a reactionless drive. If teleportation, the cat would dematerialize from inside the harness and re-materialize on the astronaut’s chest.

Perhaps I should take advantage of the rest of the weekend to write up the Feline Drive idea in a more formal framework and see if I can’t bag that Ig Nobel after all.

Now, about the cat flight film. If it was recorded as part of an Air Force-funded flight, the film is likely to have been archived somewhere and that means it could be acquired through an FOIA request.

Or possibly one of the other members of the Human Factors staff (or their successors) would have it. If you still have any contacts in that area, perhaps they might have a clue? I think you could be assured of an instant viral video hit. I could think about it for a while and try to come up with an angle for capitalizing on that, but I don’t know how well any such ideas might be received. <grin>


I can only say that I have tried to find a copy of that film, and haven’t been able to do it. I last saw it at a conference at Randolph Field probably thirty years ago. It was made about fifty years ago, and I don’t know that more than one copy was ever made.

I agree that “reactionless drive” may be a more inclusive description of the cat’s motive power than teleportation. Whatever allowed it to travel, claws extended, from midair in the cockpit to the chest of the pilot is not at all visible, and this would not be the direction we would have predicted an inanimate object would go at that phase of the flight.

I haven’t any firm opinion on the motivation of the cat. I do know that no pilot who has seen that film has ever been interested in replicating the experiment.






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