wafting your way along the slipstreams of the Info Highway

from Bubbles = Tom Digby



Issue #13

New Moon of Jan 20, 1996

Contents copyright 1997 by Thomas G. Digby, with a liberal definition of "fair use". In other words, feel free to quote excerpts elsewhere (with proper attribution), post the entire zine (verbatim, including this notice) on other boards that don't charge specifically for reading the zine, link my Web page, and so on, but if something from here forms a substantial part of something you make money from, it's only fair that I get a cut of the profits.

For more background info, details of how the mailing list works, etc., look at issue #Zero.

If you email me a reply or comment, please make clear whether or not it's for publication.

A few weeks ago, while idly fooling around with computer floppies, I happened to hold one up to the light. To my surprise I found it wasn't totally opaque. I could see through it, dimly, at least when I looked at things like light bulbs. This got me curious, and I tried other disks. I could see through all the high-density disks I tried, both 5 1/4" and 3 1/2". The few double-density 5 1/4" disks I tried did, however, seem totally opaque, as did most of the double-density 3 1/2" disks I could find. One unmarked 3 1/2" disk that was probably double density was a little transparent, but less so than a high-density disk. The difference was obvious in a side-by-side comparison.

This difference makes sense if you know the theory. The magnetic oxide on higher-density disks is thinner, for technical reasons having to do with putting the bits closer together while still getting a strong playback signal.

Practical applications? Probably not many, other than as something to start conversations with. But if someone gives you some unmarked disks, especially the 5 1/4" ones that don't have a sensor hole to indicate density, this might help you figure out what kind of disks they are.

I was sitting there, wondering about cluster sizes on some virtual drives I might set up on my computer, when the cat in my lap woke up. There he was lying there, just sort of looking around wondering what to do next. I don't think he was worrying about MS-DOS cluster sizes, or indeed any other computer thing except maybe mice, and even then it's not the computer kind. That leaves me wondering how one explains MS-DOS cluster sizes to a cat? I suspect one doesn't.

As you may be aware, Earth's rotation is not absolutely constant. On average it's slowing down from the braking effect of the tides, but in the shorter term it sometimes speeds up or slows down by a millisecond or so a day for various reasons, not all of which are understood. This wasn't noticed in ancient times, but now we have clocks that are more constant than the rotation of the Earth. Since we traditionally base timekeeping on Earth's rotation, we now have a system of adding or subtracting "leap seconds" once or twice a year to keep the clocks in tune with the Earth.

There was a leap second this past New Year's, and it got me to wondering what the feelings were when timekeeping technology first got good enough to detect variations in Earth's rotation. Did they at first think their clocks were wrong? Seems likely, since those would have been the first clocks good enough to raise the question of the Earth not being absolutely constant. But then what changed their minds? Several other equally accurate clocks all showing the same "error"? A failure of theoretically better clocks to agree with Earth's rotation? Checks against the motions of other planets and stars? Various combinations of these things?

And what was the reaction when the findings were announced? Quiet acceptance? Denunciation of the concept as blasphemy, that something man-made could hope to be better than God's creation?

Even though the concept of an inconstant Earth is now generally accepted, could some alternate-world theocracy have fought it? Would they perhaps have laws against making clocks precise enough to bring up the question? Perhaps, the argument might go, the devil can cause all such super- accurate clocks to be off the same amount in the same direction, thus testing people's faith in the constancy of God's Earth. So they take pains to put in enough sources of random error to eliminate that possibility. Or maybe they avoid using certain technologies. Quartz crystals may be OK, but no cesium time standards would be allowed.

So such a society would use less-accurate clocks, with Earth's rotation as the primary standard. There would be some agency with telescopes and such, checking time by the stars. In a way the mechanics of keeping the Earth and clocks together wouldn't be too different from our system of leap seconds.

But in other ways society would be quite different. There would be less use of clocks for things like navigation, or at least it wouldn't be as precise. Official time signals would perhaps rely on voice announcements because they don't give the "false" impression of accuracy that digital pulses do. And so on.

And how would such a society act if it didn't rule the world? What if other countries didn't feel this way? The official time of day might differ slightly, because the theocracy would be correcting theirs by the stars many times a year while the places that accepted an inconstant Earth as the explanation would have cesium clocks and are likely to have a leap-second system like ours.

So the legal time in the two places could generally differ by some fraction of a second, but seldom more than a couple of seconds. Aside from things like navigation and broadcasting it might have little effect. There would be occasional instances of something significant happening within a split-second of a contract expiring or a law taking effect, with a question arising because citizens of both countries were involved, but those would be statistically very rare unless someone deliberately set some up as an act of provocation.

More significant would be differences in attitude and nomenclature. The theocracy would say the other side's leap seconds were just another way of acknowledging that man-made clocks weren't as good as God's Earth, but would roundly condemn the other side's explanations that spoke of "variations in Earth's rotation". There might be some censorship, including scientific papers and technical articles. "If you're going to send your publications into our country, they can't appear to contradict our faith." I would guess the technological side would allow the theocracy's publications to circulate relatively freely, since their people would be free to know what all the fuss was about. The theocracy could act similarly, but I think they would be more likely to at least require warning labels or something, so the faithful would know the article they were reading was tainted.

So what would happen in the long run? Assuming it didn't come to an actual shooting war, and that even in a sort of "cold war" situation some trade took place, would they come to some working agreement? Would the non-theocrats agree to fractional leap seconds several times a year to keep the theocrats happy? Would the theocrats' zeal cool after a number of generations? Would they start to allow atomic clocks, noting that since the devil seemed to be making them all similarly wrong you would be safe in assuming that one atomic clock would agree with another somewhere else even if both were wrong? Would this be seen as a triumph over evil, a divine limitation on how the devil can mess up clocks? Would the theocracy eventually drop this as an article of faith required of all its citizens, letting each believe according to conscience? In other words, would the theocracy eventually cease to be as much of a theocracy? This parallels what has happened in our world over various scientific matters such as the heliocentric solar system, not to mention theories of evolution.

While I was writing this I noticed that this spelling checker didn't have "cesium". It suggested "sesame" instead. But somehow I don't think sesame would work as well as cesium in clocks. Of course scientists have been wrong before, but on this one I feel fairly confident.

And speaking of spelling checkers, how about a game of Spelling Checkers? When it's your move you have to spell a word first, and if you don't get it right you lose the turn. That might be a useful educational tool. It's also less predictable than regular checkers. Even if you know one player is a better speller and/or a better checker player, there's still the element of chance as to who gets what words, not to mention handicapping by giving better spellers harder words in general.

And back on time-related stuff:

                                TIME GUM

If you've always wanted to roam the corridors of time,
To meet Shakespeare,
Attend the original Olympics,
Or bumble around with dinosaurs,
And you're the kind of person who prefers hiking to driving,
Then I recommend
Time Gum.

Some flavors let you chew your way straight into the past
That you've always read about in history books
While others take you crookedly into other pasts
Of dragons
And wizards
And fairy-tale princesses
And still other flavors give you the future.

I could say more about futures,
But some people feel it's like telling the ending
To a movie you haven't seen yet,
Or opening your Christmas presents early
And having nothing to do on Christmas morning
But sit around wishing you'd waited,
So I won't.

In some ways Time Gum is very mysterious.
Like, nobody knows when or if
It was, or will be, or would have been invented.
But most futures are full of warehouses full of it
So nobody really worries about it.

Some people wonder if it's safe.
The main danger is cheap imitations
That aren't really Time Gum at all
But just regular gum with drugs in it
To make you think you're on a time trip
When you really aren't.

It seems, however,
That dealers in such bogus wares
Often suddenly find
That their grandparents had no children,
And their parents didn't either,
And neither will they, probably,
So it's never really been a problem.

Still, it's safer to buy from someone you trust.
Just ask your friends to recommend someone.
Chances are they can,
Since Time Gum is not as rare
As you might think.

If you've ever endured banquet speeches
That seemed to drone on and on forever,
Or been enjoying a concert
When it ended all too soon,
Chances are that some of the lumps
Stuck to the underside of your seat
Are, or were, or will be, or might have been,
Time Gum.

                                              Thomas G. Digby

                                    written 2340 hr Oct 26 83
                                    entered 0415 hr Nov 22 83

                                -- END --

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