wafting your way along the slipstreams of the Info Highway

from Bubbles = Tom Digby



Issue #26

New Moon of February 7, 1997

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.

Groundhog Day was a few days ago. You know the story: If it's sunny so the groundhog sees his shadow, he goes back into his hole and we have six more weeks of winter. If he doesn't see it we get an early spring. Some versions say the groundhog goes back because he's afraid of his shadow, but he must eventually get over it because he doesn't stay down there all summer.

I was looking in a book of fairy lore and happened upon a story that gives a somewhat more logical version, at least within the context of myth and legend: In some part of the British Isles where it's cool enough for people to want heat even in summertime, some weather spirit goes about on February 1 (close enough to Groundhog Day) gathering firewood for the summer. If it's a good day for gathering wood, she can sit by her fire during a chilly summer and/or an extended winter. But if it's foul weather, she stays in and instead of a fire she makes a quick spring and a good summer.

And I'm wondering if there's any scientific foundation to this. Are there areas where sunshine in late January and early February tends to correlate with cool summers? Weather patterns do seem to be more widely connected than we once thought, so I wouldn't be surprised at something like this actually being the case. But it wouldn't work everywhere the tradition has spread to.

"Forty years ago I walked to school through snow." That's a cliche thing for children to hear from their grandparents. But even though I'm not a parent, grand or otherwise, it once happened to me. Yes, one day approximately forty years ago I walked to school through snow.

No, I didn't do it as a regular thing. I grew up in Florida, where snow is practically unheard of. But this was northern Florida, up by Jacksonville, and snow wasn't totally unheard of. They have a few days with frost every year, and maybe once every ten or twenty years it snows there.

February 13, 1957, was such a day. We woke to a white landscape, covered with maybe half an inch of that white stuff people sing about at Christmas. It was hard to believe, but there it was. And even though it would be considered wimpy by the standards of most places outside the Sun Belt, in Florida it definitely WAS something to write home about. Stores sold out of film within a couple of hours after opening. And I walked to school through it.

This was high school and it was the day for the SAT tests. The novelty of it all may have affected some people's performance on the tests, but I did quite well anyway.

I do recall one person making a snowball, and setting it in the window of the testing room where it hung, between glass and screen, for much of the day. It eventually melted, as did the snow on the ground. So even though I can say that forty years ago I walked to school through snow, I can't say that I ever walked home from school through snow.

That was forty years ago. Time marches on.

Time marches on, despite our attempts to put stumbling blocks before its feet. Time marches on. Who is its drum major? Who gives the commands? Who sets the parade route? Who beats the cadence? Who designs the uniforms? Who writes the tunes Time marches to? How many different drummers does Time march to? Are they in step with each other? And why am I asking all these silly questions?

So now we are, as the time travelers said (or will say) upon arrival. "Whenever you go, then you are."

And Kittycat is in my lap. I don't think Kittycat worries about time travel, or the paradoxes thereof. But you never know. Maybe cats are secret time travelers. And maybe all this stuff about nine lives comes from some time-traveling cats visiting the same time more than once. People see several instances of the same cat, maybe even kill some of them, and then get confused and come up with the "nine lives" theory.

Well, it sort of makes sense.

I've had some thoughts of using computers for tattoo design. Get a photo of the subject, and draw stuff on it until everybody's happy. If you really want to do a thorough job of it, draw (with greasepaint or something else temporary) some sort of reference design on the subject's body, then photograph that from different angles. Then design the real design on-screen, and let the computer predict how it'll look on the subject from various angles. But that may not be necessary. The human eye and brain can do a lot of that kind of computation automatically, so if you just draw it on a picture of the subject that may be enough.

The Putri-DOS people are working on a new version of Unix, possibly to be called "P-U-Nix!" And it will solve many of the problems of other vendors' versions.

One problem is the system administrator who loses the root password. Fixing this generally requires logging in from a floppy or something and editing the password file. But P-U-Nix! will have a simpler method: Log in as "backdoor" with a password of "roodkcab". This will put you in a special shell that lets you change the root password. Problem solved.

What about unauthorized intruders, one might ask? No problem. This is a restricted shell that can't do anything but change the root password. Intruders will find that boring and won't stay logged in.

After the recent floods in Northern California there was a newspaper article on building in flood plains. That gave me an idea: Houseboats.

Imagine a houseboat sitting in its own little pool, which can also serve as a swimming pool or a fish farm or a decorative feature of the landscaping. If there's a flood, the house rises with the water. If there's a fire, the water in the pool is available for firefighting. And if there's an earthquake, proper engineering will let the water act as an isolator so the house won't shake as much as the surrounding land.

The water, being a rather large thermal mass, can also aid in temperature control. In hot-summer areas air conditioning costs will be less if you can dump excess heat into the water with a heat pump. And you could also use that same heat pump for winter heat, so long as your pool didn't freeze solid. Even if supplemental heat is needed during the coldest part of the year this could help quite a bit at other times.

Now the pool and the houseboat and the flexible connections for the various utilities may cost more to build than a conventional house, but the extra investment may well pay off in the long term.

And it may not cost all that much extra. If you're selling a large number of these and you're willing to go with prefab designs you can build them in a factory and ship them to the site in sections, like so- called "mobile" homes. If the sections are designed properly you will be able to "mix and match" to get semi-custom floor plans. And if you also have blank hull sections available you can have added deck area that could be either a patio or a platform for custom construction.

This is, of course, not suitable for all locations. You need a source of water to keep the pool filled, even if the water isn't potable. And you need reasonably level ground to allow the pool to be dug. But there are plenty of places where it should work.

And I have more thoughts on disaster-tolerant housing. I've long thought of an all-metal A-frame for fire-prone areas. Embers landing on such a steep metal roof won't be a problem. Pave the immediate surrounding area, or make it a reflecting pool, and you're safe from grass fires. And so on. Maybe, for areas prone to both fire and floods, this can be one of the standard houseboat designs? The main problem I see there is the tall A-frame being blown over by high winds. More engineering.

Costs? You can afford to have some cost increase because of the reduced probability of having to replace the whole thing (plus contents) during its expected useful life. And if you can set a price on pain and suffering you can justify even more added cost.

"If there's no comment, that means you did a perfect job." That seems to be standard for things like engineering reviews, and also in the military. "No news is good news." And it shows up in computer stuff too. If you do a Unix command like rm or mv or cp and there are no messages back, that means it went OK. The only time you get any kind of message is when something goes wrong.

I've run into at least one person who was uncomfortable with that type of feedback, at least from people. If the same applies to computer stuff, perhaps that's something that could be changed to make computers more user-friendly? Actually do something along the lines of the jokes about "Good command or file name" to go along with the "Bad command or file name" message MS-DOS gives? Praise the user when something goes right? Something to think about.

If some users find this kind of thing too verbose or artificially cute or otherwise objectionable, provide a setting to turn it off. But make it available for those who could benefit from it.

Another recent major event was the Super Bowl. I normally don't watch sports on TV, but I saw part of this one while waiting for a program scheduled for afterward. And the part I saw reminded me that I never learned to see details of the action. They snap the ball, men run around in seeming confusion, and play ends with the ball somewhere else. And that's It.

It makes me think of what football must be like in Toon Town.

Different teams have different playing styles, but in some games they snap the ball, and then there's this big cloud of dust like a fight or something, and when it clears the ball is down somewhere with everybody from both teams piled on top of it. Then the ones on top get off, revealing the ones on the bottom bandaged up to one degree or another. Then they bring in fresh players to replace the ones with the most bandages, and do it again. Kind of dull, but if you're not a football fan that's probably what the game looks like to you anyway, so there's no loss.

But it isn't always dull. Occasionally a player manages to burst out of the dust cloud, running for all he's worth with the other team in hot pursuit. And the crowd goes wild. Sometimes literally, what with animal characters and all, so they have to bring in lion tamers with whips and chairs to restore order. That's really something to see, if you're at a safe distance.

If you're watching it on TV you're safe if it's a serious live-action set. But if you're watching on a cartoon TV you may want to put chicken wire or something over the screen Just In Case. You never know when a wild kick or something will send the ball right into the TV camera. Or maybe people in the crowd start throwing things. And during a Big Game that the whole country is watching, a football landing in the middle of fifty million coffee tables can do quite a lot of damage. So all the safety authorities recommend using a serious TV for sports viewing. Or if you must use a cartoon TV, don't forget the chicken wire.

And you could use cartoon TV physics for matter duplication. Throw a football into a cartoon TV camera that's feeding a bunch of monitors, and, if it's funny and suits the plot, a copy of the ball will come out of the screen of every one of those monitors. The reason it isn't more widely used as a manufacturing technique is that it would soon get routine and No Longer Funny. Do it on rare occasions, especially with something in front of the set to get knocked over or broken or splashed with custard pie or something, and it'll work. Do it in a factory every day and it won't.

Have an auction of unclaimed emotional baggage? Let poets and artists buy it and turn the trash and rags into works of art? Get it out of the way, and make something worthwhile out of it?

I (and most other writers and artists) have some dreams of achieving immortality through my works. But if the universe itself has an eventual end, then immortality of any sort is a vain hope. So I would think that artists (including writers) would want an open universe, assuming there's a way around eventual heat death. Many scientists want a closed universe because they see it as neater, but I disagree with them on that.

Of course any form of metaphysical immortality is a whole new ball game. Perhaps there's a Heaven full of beings from countless prior universes, and we will eventually join them. Then the fact that physical evidence of our existence may not survive the end of this universe won't matter as much.

                              Silent Cycles

Late-night restaurant after the reading,
With a TV set in the corner:
Motorcycle races,
Live from the daylight side of the world,
With the sound turned down.  

See them glide along the winding road,
Silent as swans on a lake,
Leaning implausibly far into the turns,
Left ... 
Right ...
Left ... 
Right ...
More like dancers than racers.  

These are racing machines, 
Rough edges covered over for aerodynamics, 
Hiding their inner nature.  
It is difficult to judge scale,
And the camera angles downplay their speed
Posted now and then in little numbers on the screen.  

Part of me finds the silent ballet soothing,
Even though my left brain knows 
That for the riders it is quite otherwise.  

                                   -- Tom Digby
                                   6:42 p.m. February 6, 1997 
                                   12:20 a.m. February 7, 1997 

                                -- END --

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