What-If 0107: "Letter to Mom"

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ManaUser
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What-If 0107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby ManaUser » Thu Jul 31, 2014 7:04 am UTC

Tim wrote:What’s the fastest way to get a hand-written letter from my place in Chicago to my mother in New Jersey?

http://what-if.xkcd.com/107/

I suppose hand-writing it on a tablet and emailing the result is out of the question.

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby rhomboidal » Thu Jul 31, 2014 8:01 am UTC

Hehe, Superheroes: Inspiring And Warping Young Scientific Minds With Awesome Nonsense Since 1934.

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby Flumble » Thu Jul 31, 2014 8:09 am UTC

As someone said in the previous thread:
squall_line wrote:I will say that it almost seems as if someone is ghost-writing the What-If's lately. They haven't been on the same level as I came to expect, and certainly aren't being posted on Tuesday Mornings any longer (or even sometimes on Wednesdays). Troubles with the publishing process on the book?

Half of this what-if is devoted to POIs on google maps.

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby Brian-M » Thu Jul 31, 2014 10:34 am UTC

ManaUser wrote:I suppose hand-writing it on a tablet and emailing the result is out of the question.


Maybe I'm showing my age, but when I read the What-If I was thinking that the handwritten letter could be sent by fax.

Of course, this would require the mother to own a fax machine (some people still use them). On the other hand, your method would require the mother to own a computer (or smartphone).

Either way, it all depends on whether or not receiving an electronically-transmitted duplicate of a handwritten letter counts as receiving a handwritten letter.

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby speising » Thu Jul 31, 2014 10:52 am UTC

a fax would violate the "use more power" rule, since it'd be faster than the ICBM.
anyway, that wasn't a "what if?", but a "what is?".

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby Flumble » Thu Jul 31, 2014 11:02 am UTC

Brian-M wrote:Either way, it all depends on whether or not receiving an electronically-transmitted duplicate of a handwritten letter counts as receiving a handwritten letter.

It's a very lossy duplicate either way, as it only loosely scans the reflective properties of the surface. (you can argue that this is what holds the information, in which case even OCR is close to lossless)

Would mom be satisfied with a copy at ångström resolution? In that case the time it takes is (using a streaming protocol) {distance}/{light speed}+{volume of paper}*minimum({scanning speed}, {bandwidth of transfer medium}, {printing speed})

...+{time at which such a precise printer is developed}-{current time}
. Hmm, you're better off walking. Also, due to rounding errors you might create loads of benzenes and perhaps asbestos (unless the process reconstructs atoms/molecules instead of individual subatomic particles).

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby rmsgrey » Thu Jul 31, 2014 1:10 pm UTC

Flumble wrote:
Brian-M wrote:Either way, it all depends on whether or not receiving an electronically-transmitted duplicate of a handwritten letter counts as receiving a handwritten letter.

It's a very lossy duplicate either way, as it only loosely scans the reflective properties of the surface. (you can argue that this is what holds the information, in which case even OCR is close to lossless)

Would mom be satisfied with a copy at ångström resolution? In that case the time it takes is (using a streaming protocol) {distance}/{light speed}+{volume of paper}*minimum({scanning speed}, {bandwidth of transfer medium}, {printing speed})

...+{time at which such a precise printer is developed}-{current time}
. Hmm, you're better off walking. Also, due to rounding errors you might create loads of benzenes and perhaps asbestos (unless the process reconstructs atoms/molecules instead of individual subatomic particles).


If you go down that route, none of the methods considered will allow Mom to get the letter as originally sent - particles will be lost and gained, and those that remain will be in different configurations...

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby Whizbang » Thu Jul 31, 2014 1:22 pm UTC

What about writing "I ♥ Mom" on the moon with a giant laser? Surely that would get the message across pretty quick.

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby cellocgw » Thu Jul 31, 2014 1:34 pm UTC

Brian-M wrote:
ManaUser wrote:I suppose hand-writing it on a tablet and emailing the result is out of the question.


Maybe I'm showing my age, but when I read the What-If I was thinking that the handwritten letter could be sent by fax.

Of course, this would require the mother to own a fax machine (some people still use them). On the other hand, your method would require the mother to own a computer (or smartphone).

Either way, it all depends on whether or not receiving an electronically-transmitted duplicate of a handwritten letter counts as receiving a handwritten letter.

I would email the letter and pay someone at the mom's end to hand-write the contents. He didn't say his mom had to receive the exact same handwritten letter he wrote :mrgreen:
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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby AEB » Thu Jul 31, 2014 1:37 pm UTC

I would have looked at the definition of "hand written". If mom has an Autopen (basically a robot wielding a pen over a paper covered surface) like the one POTUS uses, then Tim could "hand write" the letter from the comfort of Chicago and email an HPGL-type control file to her. She gets an authentic pen-on-paper "hand written" letter from her son. Travel time less then a few seconds.

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby Catmando » Thu Jul 31, 2014 2:38 pm UTC

I find it pretty cool I live on the walking route.

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby Mikeski » Thu Jul 31, 2014 2:51 pm UTC

AEB wrote:Travel time less then a few seconds.

I think we'd have to consider the time the autopen takes to rewrite the letter as part of the travel time. Still might beat the ICBM, though.

(I was expecting this what-if to hit artillery midway down the page and end with quantum entanglement.)

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby mathmannix » Thu Jul 31, 2014 3:11 pm UTC

xkcd wrote:Citation needed


Too bad Citation's been dead for nearly 44 years.
I hear velociraptor tastes like chicken.

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby AEB » Thu Jul 31, 2014 3:23 pm UTC

Mikeski wrote:
AEB wrote:Travel time less then a few seconds.

I think we'd have to consider the time the autopen takes to rewrite the letter as part of the travel time. Still might beat the ICBM, though.


Certainly less destructive

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby ManaUser » Thu Jul 31, 2014 3:45 pm UTC

On the other hand, if having the letter arrive physically is a requirement, but arriving intact and readable is not (as suggested by the ICBM solution), might there be some some way convert a the letter to neutrinos so it reaches (and passes through) Mom at the speed of light?

I assume the most expedient way to do this would be to simply tape it to a thermonuclear bomb (or better yet insert it inside the tamper). But I don't even know where to begin calculating the odds of that any matter from the letter would end up where you want it.

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby keithl » Thu Jul 31, 2014 4:19 pm UTC

The earth orbits the sun at 30 km/s. An object falling from the Oort cloud in a retrograde parabola moves at 45km/s near earth's orbit. A long dense object could travel through the atmosphere at 75 km/s. We will need two of these.

The great circle distance from Chicago to Hackensack is 1140 km. A straight trajectory from one to the other would pass 25 km beneath Rome, Ohio. We don't want to dig a vacuum tunnel, it might encourage Mom to visit too often.

The letter is written at the top of the Sears Tower, and placed in a kevlar vacuum container on a collapsing shock mounted flat platform inside a capsule. The first boloid is aimed to pass through the tower, smack the container, which crushes around the letter capsule. The capsule bounces towards a glancing deflection off the second boloid passing over Rome. The remants of the capsule bounce towards a tall building in Hackensack where Mom is held hostage by suicidal postal workers.

Elapsed time for delivery, 16 seconds. If the letter is asking Mom for money, it may not accomplish the intended result.

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby keithl » Thu Jul 31, 2014 4:43 pm UTC

My second method is faster than 16 seconds, and involves much less destruction, loss of life, and loss of only one limb. It is inspired by this Tom Lehrer song.

Your arm is surgically amputated at the bicep, connected to nerve stimulators and bottled nutrients, and sent to mom by parcel post. She plugs it in, replenishes the nutrients (blood extracted from the postman might work), puts a pen in the hand over a piece of writing paper, and connects it to the internet.

Signals from the nerve endings in your bloody stump are amplified, digitized, and sent to the severed limb and hand in Mom's house. You command your phantom limb to write a letter, and voila!

Your tender-hearted mother is almost sure to send you the money you are requesting to pay for your new prosthetic arm.

This suggests a method for Randal to go on an extensive multicontinent book signing tour, while staying home with his wife.

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby Jakec » Thu Jul 31, 2014 4:51 pm UTC

Hi, this is my first post.

It occurs to me that there's a good reason why the specified route avoided the Buffalo Valley Rail Trail. Unless I'm very much mistaken, the walking route option of Google Maps calculates the shortest possible route. The purpose of a highway is to let people drive quickly from one place to another, whereas the purpose of a walking trail is to be scenic, so a walking trail will often be longer, unless there are major natural obstacles. This isn't the case in the Buffalo Valley, so the highway (Pennsylvania Route 45) is likely to be shorter, and thus will be selected by Google Maps. I verified this in Google Maps. The stretch of Pennsylvania Route 45 from Mifflinburg to Lewisburg is 8.9 miles, whereas the Buffalo Valley Rail Trail is 9.1 miles (counting the side roads that you have to take to get from Route 45 to the trailhead).

Or perhaps there are ghosts. But I've been there a few times and never seen any.

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby rmsgrey » Thu Jul 31, 2014 4:51 pm UTC

keithl wrote:My second method is faster than 16 seconds, and involves much less destruction, loss of life, and loss of only one limb. It is inspired by this Tom Lehrer song.

Your arm is surgically amputated at the bicep, connected to nerve stimulators and bottled nutrients, and sent to mom by parcel post. She plugs it in, replenishes the nutrients (blood extracted from the postman might work), puts a pen in the hand over a piece of writing paper, and connects it to the internet.

Signals from the nerve endings in your bloody stump are amplified, digitized, and sent to the severed limb and hand in Mom's house. You command your phantom limb to write a letter, and voila!

Your tender-hearted mother is almost sure to send you the money you are requesting to pay for your new prosthetic arm.

This suggests a method for Randal to go on an extensive multicontinent book signing tour, while staying home with his wife.


But is the handwritten letter being sent from Chicago?

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby keithl » Thu Jul 31, 2014 5:07 pm UTC

rmsgrey wrote:
keithl wrote:My second method is faster than 16 seconds ... Your arm is surgically amputated at the bicep ... command your phantom limb to write a letter, and voila!
But is the handwritten letter being sent from Chicago?
You would argue details with a self-mutilating maniac?

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby Pfhorrest » Thu Jul 31, 2014 5:37 pm UTC

With the technology required to enact that remote-controlled biological arm, you wouldn't need a prosthetic arm at all, you'd just need the original arm shipped back to you after it's served its purpose. If you can hook the arm up perfectly to machines, and the stump up perfectly to machines, you could just as effectively hook the arm back up perfectly to the stump.

Anyway, I'd argue that while emailing something hand-written on a tablet doesn't count, as you're really emailing a copy of an image of a hand-written letter, hand-writing the letter directly onto a digital whiteboard that exists nowhere but simultaneously at every node connected to it does count, and would most certainly be the fastest method, especially including prep time. Even accounting for the difficulties the elderly have with technology, walking Mom through connecting to a digital whiteboard application has got to take less time than arranging for convenient boloids or surgically disconnecting and shipping your arm or even just obtaining and deploying an ICBM. Even if you don't have a drawing tablet to use for the hand-writing requirement, you're in Chicago: run out to any computer store and buy one and come back and set it up, prep time somewhere under an hour there. Say you don't even know anything about digital whiteboard availability, which I didn't until just now. Google "digital whiteboard online", find awwapp.com, click Start Drawing, look for how to connect to other people, find Menu -> Invite, get URL to share to invite people; under a minute. Email URL to Mom, call her to tell her to click on it; variable time depending on how much she wants to talk your ear off first before getting down to business. Now start hand-writing the letter, and by the time you're done, it's sent.

Of course I'm sure the intent of the original question was letter which was not only written via the method of hand-writing, but on the medium of paper. But that wasn't explicitly specified, so this method is technically correct. Which is the best kind of correct.
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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby Mirkwood » Fri Aug 01, 2014 6:31 am UTC

I think it's unfortunate that Randall only thought about the speed of travel, and not the delivery time as a whole. After all, while a missile may be very fast, it will take some time to transport the letter to the closest launch site and prepare a missile for letter delivery. Bribing the right people would also be very expensive. On the other hand, you could start walking or driving from Chicago to New Jersey at almost any time--though it is hard to do worse than 11 days delivery time. Let's look at this more practically.

First off, why walk? With a bicycle, Google Maps suggests Tim can make a 995-mile journey in 86 hours. Though the travel would cost no money, he'd have to pay for mid-journey overnight stays, costing dozens of dollars and increasing delivery time. It is, however, a great improvement over walking.

The United States Postal Service guarantees overnight delivery with Priority Mail Express. Their calculator suggests that, if Tim were to deposit his letter in the 433 W. Harrison St. post office, he could deposit it at 6:30 p.m. and be guaranteed delivery by 12:00 p.m. the following day--a fairly impressive 17 hours and 30 minutes' delivery time. He would pay $18.11 for the privilege. We don't know where Tim lives exactly, but lets add on half an hour of travel time to the post office, making 18 hours total.

As calculated by Randall, Ed Bolian (misspelled in the What-If) could make the trip in 8 hours. However, he lives in Atlanta and it would take him 7.47 hours to make the 717-mile journey from Atlanta to Chicago, assuming the 96-miles-per-hour average. Total delivery time would then be about 15 and a half hours. Assuming Bolian charged no fees for use of his Mercedes-Benz, the gas would still be quite expensive--following the official 19 miles-to-the-gallon figure for the car, it would take 79 gallons or about $280 at this week's prices.

Taking the plane is another practical method. Let's say Tim would take 30 minutes to get to O'Hare International Airport and another 30 to get on the plane. Google suggests a same-day flight (for Aug. 1) from O'Hare to Newark Liberty International Airport that would take two hours--public transportation from Newark Liberty to Hackensacken would then take 1 hour and 13 minutes. For a total of 4 hours and 13 minutes, the plane ticket alone would set him back $515.

While plane travel is by far the fastest way for Tim to get the letter to his mom (beating USPS by some 13 hours and 3/4ths), unless he values his time at more than $132.50 per hour, he really should consider mailing it.

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby Pfhorrest » Fri Aug 01, 2014 6:53 am UTC

Why not consider driving the letter yourself? It's a 12hr drive, easily done over the course of one day, and given new car average MPG of approximately 25, and regular gas prices from your link of $3.70, over the 800ish mile journey, that's about $120. About 40% the price of hiring Bolian and less than 80% the delivery time.

Of course that's not accounting for the fact that you have to drive back, which doubles everything, but Bolian would have to drive home too, so add that into your calculations.

You could probably also find someone else who's already driving that way via a ridesharing site and offer to pay half the gas just to drop off the letter, getting you 12hr delivery time for about $60.
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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby Mirkwood » Fri Aug 01, 2014 7:00 am UTC

Those are very good points, Pfhorrest. Although it is worth noting that when using USPS, you only use half an hour each way to get there, and USPS does the rest for you--if you drive yourself, that's 12 hours of your own time.

It may be most cost-efficient to pay someone who is heading that way a modest sum to make a detour to pick up the letter and then drop it off, but setting up this kind of arrangement would probably take too long for it to be worthwhile, and the person might just take your money and never deliver the letter.

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby Pfhorrest » Fri Aug 01, 2014 7:06 am UTC

Paypal/etc the money to Mom, have her pay cash on delivery for the letter.
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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby Freiberg » Fri Aug 01, 2014 12:29 pm UTC

I'm actually very surprised that Randall didn't mention the US Postal Service's past experiments with high-speed mail delivery, which actually included one instance of mail being delivered by rocket. From Wikipedia:

In 1959 the U.S. Navy submarine USS Barbero assisted the Post Office Department, predecessor to the United States Postal Service (USPS), in its search for faster mail transportation, with the only delivery of "Missile Mail". On 8 June 1959, Barbero fired a Regulus cruise missile — its nuclear warhead having earlier been replaced by two Post Office Department mail containers — targeted at the Naval Auxiliary Air Station at Naval Station Mayport. The Regulus cruise missile was launched with a pair of Aerojet-General 3KS-33,000 [3 sec duration, 33,000 lbf (150 kN) thrust] solid-propellant boosters. A turbojet engine sustained the long-range cruise flight after the boosters were dropped. Twenty-two minutes after launch, the missile struck its target.

The USPS had officially established a branch post office on Barbero and delivered some 3000 pieces of mail to it before Barbero left Norfolk, Virginia. The mail consisted entirely of commemorative postal covers addressed to President of the United States Dwight Eisenhower, other government officials, the Postmasters General of all members of the Universal Postal Union, and so on, from United States Postmaster General Arthur E. Summerfield. Their postage (four cents domestic, eight cents international) had been cancelled "USS Barbero Jun 8 9.30am 1959" before the submarine put to sea. At Mayport, the Regulus missile was opened and the mail forwarded to the post office in Jacksonville, Florida, for sorting and routing.

Upon witnessing the missile's landing, Summerfield stated, "This peacetime employment of a guided missile for the important and practical purpose of carrying mail, is the first known official use of missiles by any Post Office Department of any nation."[9] Summerfield proclaimed the event to be "of historic significance to the peoples of the entire world",[10] and predicted that "before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail."[11]

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby ShuRugal » Fri Aug 01, 2014 12:35 pm UTC

Mirkwood wrote:Those are very good points, Pfhorrest. Although it is worth noting that when using USPS, you only use half an hour each way to get there, and USPS does the rest for you--if you drive yourself, that's 12 hours of your own time.



When i worked in an eBay store, it always astonished me the number of people who failed to understand this.

"Freight shipping for that copier is going to be $200? Naw, I'll just take a day off work and drive 200 miles to come pick it up."

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby Xenomortis » Fri Aug 01, 2014 12:46 pm UTC

If you earn less than $150 a day then that could be totally worth it.
Image

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby keithl » Fri Aug 01, 2014 3:30 pm UTC

chihak.png

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby keithl » Fri Aug 01, 2014 3:35 pm UTC

This may be a good application for AWBT technology.

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby masonwheeler » Fri Aug 01, 2014 6:23 pm UTC

Fun post, as always. I have to wonder, though, what's with the comic mocking the Hyperloop? I'd have thought that's something Randall would think is awesome.

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby saabstory88 » Fri Aug 01, 2014 11:31 pm UTC

It occurs to me that the solution is very simple. If we require a hand written letter, in its original form, to arrive at the mother, and be legible, it cam be accomplished with technology that is readily available to anyone.

First, let us consider two of the requirements. First, that it be a letter. We shall assume that whomever composed the words of the letter, is the Author of the letter, in this case, Tim. The next requirement is that the letter be hand written, and lets say it must be done by an actual living human person.

We will now get the letter from Tim's head, to the mothers hands, in under 5 minutes (presumably). Tim starts by picking up the phone, and calling his mother. She answers, and he asks for her to go fetch a pen and paper. This is the variable that could most affect the total time, required, whether she has pen and paper available. We will assume she does within her house. He then asks her to dictate a letter from him to her, which he will presumably keep short, as to improve the total delivery time.

So, we have a total delivery time of minutes, of a physical letter, with the top speed of the letter being the speed at which the ideas can be synthesized by his brain, transmitted through the telecom network, and be decoded by her brain.

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby Mikeski » Sat Aug 02, 2014 1:56 am UTC

Thinking back on my Grandmother's passing, one of the things left in her house were letters that she had kept. At the time, I was in my late 30s, and some of the letters were things I had written to her while I was in grade school.

Clearly, the letter itself, rather than the words upon it, is the important thing. All talk of autopens, faxes, dictation, quantum entanglement (that was me, sorry), and anything else that provides a copy instead of the original personally-written letter violates the spirit of the question. Sentimentality trumps efficiency, else the questioner would have just called his mom to tell her he loves her.

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby Flumble » Sat Aug 02, 2014 1:48 pm UTC

Mikeski wrote:to tell her he loves her.

I don't know where you got that assumption from. Maybe he's demanding superpowers (who knows some superpowers require a handwritten application), or a ransom, or a ransom for his ransom, or her paying his rent. Or that he can now afford writing letters.


Another way to quickly deliver the letter, is not to increase velocity, but reduce the distance. Detonate some (nuclear) explosives far beneath the surface, attach a great number of rockets beneath the city and you can move New Jersey near Chicago within the hour.

Yet another way is reducing the perceived time. Just detach the Earth from Chicago and New Jersey and move the planet around at 99.99999% the speed of light, while the pony express delivers the letter. After reattaching the Earth, the letter is delivered within 2 minutes. Alternatively, you can introduce a (cluster of) black hole(s) to achieve this dilation.

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby <?php die(); ?> » Mon Aug 04, 2014 9:59 am UTC

both you and your mom get on a motorcycle (find and pay someone to drive you there really fast) and you meet half-way

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby p1t1o » Mon Aug 04, 2014 11:11 am UTC

Is it not wonderous when a piece of knowledge previously thought to be completely useless suddenly becomes relevant through some quirk of context? Oh sweet, sweet vindication!

I'll just leave this here - Spoiler: there once really was a mail service that delivered mail by missile.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rocket_mail

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby esbboston » Tue Aug 05, 2014 9:13 pm UTC

A fast way to send a hand written letter to your mother would be to call your mother's neighbor and dictate. The neighbor writes the letter by hand and also delivers it.

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby esbboston » Tue Aug 05, 2014 9:24 pm UTC

One way to instantly send hand written notes to someone is by using a telautograph machine. We had these devices in our laboratory back in the 1980's to deliver test results to control rooms. The device was patented July 31st, 1888. So install a pair of machines and get after it.

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Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby rmsgrey » Tue Aug 05, 2014 11:39 pm UTC

Lots of people are still answering the question "Given that I am currently in Chicago and my mother is currently in New Jersey, what's the fastest way I can transfer significant information to her so that she receives it in the form of a hand-written letter?"

The actual question in the What If is about a specific handwritten letter that exists (or will exist at a specified time) in the questioners place in Chicago, and needs to be got from there to his mother in New Jersey.

This is the point in marking student work where I write RTQ angrily in the margin and start trying to decide how much credit a substantially correct answer to their question deserves.

Korbl
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Joined: Tue Feb 10, 2009 1:41 am UTC

Re: What-If 107: "Letter to Mom"

Postby Korbl » Thu Aug 07, 2014 8:41 am UTC

rmsgrey wrote:The actual question in the What If is about a specific handwritten letter that exists (or will exist at a specified time) in the questioners place in Chicago, and needs to be got from there to his mother in New Jersey.


the question wrote:What’s the fastest way to get a hand-written letter from my place in Chicago to my mother in New Jersey?


Nope, just "a letter." Writing the letter, scanning it, and emailing it is viable, as are elabourate telecontrolled autopen or biomechanical hookups.

Now, maybe mom would not have as much emotional attachment to a scanned image of a handwritten letter (because human brains are weird and silly), but even then, a telecontrolled autopen would work.


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