wafting your way along the slipstreams of the Info Highway

from Bubbles = Tom Digby



Issue #30

New Moon of June 4, 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.

June. It doesn't seem to be busting out all over the way the song says it does other places. This year it arrived at the tail end of a heat wave (see this issue's closing poem), so early June has actually been a little cooler than the last week or so of May was. Anticlimax. And since I'm not in school and haven't been for many many years, the association of June with summer vacation is weakening. It's still there faintly, but not as strongly as when I was younger.

I have a poem about how June doesn't have the same meaning here and now as it did in my school days in Florida. I ran it in SS 18 about this time last year.


Recently I was in a restaurant with a friend when I got to sort of messing around with some of those little brick-shaped packets of butter. At one point I stood two upright with a third on top and said something about "Butterhenge". My friend liked that, and we milked it as a running gag for a while. We didn't have a camera with us, or otherwise we would have photographed it. That could have been a Web thing, with part of the joke being the anticlimax of the picture after a long time loading. It might have even made the Useless Pages list, except that that URL seems to not be working right now.

Later, in a supermarket parking lot, we joked about surrounding some random car with a bigger Butterhenge built out of quarter-pound sticks, and then telling the car's owner that they couldn't leave because they'd be destroying a Historical Monument or Great Art or something. They would probably leave anyway, just drive right over our creation, in which case we should be ready with cameras to capture photographic proof of the destruction: The broken circle, the greasy tire tracks, the total disregard for the possibility that the Gingerbread Man might have been a Druid or something.

We also speculated on what an Alta Vista search would turn up. My friend thought it would come up empty, and I wouldn't be surprised at that. But I wouldn't be surprised at it finding something either.

I also suggested that he build Butterhenge on a table in the cafeteria at work, then tell the more gullible of his coworkers about how the security floodlights outside the window are supposed to line up with the central altar or something. "Are you going to make a religion out of this?" he asked, laughing. "Not seriously," replied I. But you never know.

Later on I did do an Altavista search for various "---henge" words. The results, as posted on Usenet:

: Altavista hits on various kinds of henges (no spaces or hyphens in the 
: names): 
:                          Word Count         Documents 
: stone                     13150           "about 10000" 
: car                         236           "about   100" 
: butter                        0                      0 
: margarine                     0                      0 

Clearly the Church of Butterhenge has a long way to go.

Ever notice that the ratio of the market prices of gold and silver is not a good predictor of the ratio of the market prices of goldfish and silverfish?

Something I've been thinking about off and on for some time is that maybe computer systems in general are passing beyond the realm of human understanding. CPU chips now have several million transistors, and each transistor is a pattern of several areas with different concentrations of impurities in the silicon, and I doubt there is any one person who knows all the details of the whole thing, from impurity doping patterns up to large conceptual units.

And much of the non-creative rote work of laying out lower-level functional units and converting the circuitry into patterns in the silicon has been automated. When a new chip comes out there will be parts of the design that no human will have looked at in detail.

And the same is happening with software. Most programs are written in some higher-level language and converted to actual machine language by some automated tool. When a change is necessary, the low-level machine- language code is not generally modified. It is instead discarded and recreated from modified higher-level code by the automated tools. So most actual code is born, lives, and dies without ever being looked at by a human.

And the ways humans have learned to write programs so that other humans can understand them enough to modify them later if need be do not generally produce the most efficient low-level code. So not only is there no reason to make the actual computer code comprehensible to humans, but there are good reasons not to.

And it's getting more complicated. Newer processors have several instructions at a time moving through an internal "pipeline", and these instructions sometimes interact with each other. The order things are done can make a big difference in efficiency even if the end result is the same, and sometimes things can happen in some order other than that in which the code appears to have been written. There may be a few humans who know enough about the innards of the processor to be able to figure out what a particular sequence of machine code will do, but they don't generally deal with ordinary programs. Again, the detail work is done by automated tools created by those few who understand what is really going on.

I can see the next step being the automation of the design of those automated tools, tied in with automating the detailed design of the chip. You'll have robots talking to robots, and there may be no humans at all in certain parts of the loop. So the end result will be a system that truly passes human understanding.

ENGINEER 1 [pointing to something on a chip schematic]: "What does this register here do?"

ENGINEER 2: "Nobody knows. The various programs that designed the CPU and the compilers and the system kernel agreed to put it there, and they're usually right."

MANAGER: "So why are you guys nosing around in the schematics anyway?"

ENGINEER 1: "No good reason. Just curious."

[Everybody drifts off to their duties as the Manager wonders why there's still even such a thing as human-readable schematics.]

Vampires would make good photographer's assistants because even if they got into the frame by mistake they wouldn't mess up the shot.

One thing I've long noticed about the Net is that it allows people with statistically unusual needs to find each other. Sometimes this is good, as in support groups for people with rare diseases. Sometimes it's not so good, as in terrorists or hate groups. And sometimes opinions differ, as in people with nonstandard sexual tastes.

I suspect this would apply to marketing also. If you're selling something in a niche market, or you need something that's not easy to find, that's when you need the Net. You don't need it, or at least don't need it as strongly, to find the best supermarkets in your neighborhood. For that you can ask your neighbors face to face.

Sure, eventually we'll log into the neighborhood supermarket's page to check what's on special today. Or we'll look at the local theater's page for show times. But that's just the Net (mostly the Web) taking over from newspaper inserts and voice phone recordings. I think the unique potential of the Net, the thing it can do that newspaper inserts and phone recordings can't, is searching and filtering, finding needles in haystacks. That's what computers are good at, once you know how to describe the needle in terms the computer can understand.

Speaking of movies (even if we weren't), "The Fifth Element" had police that were pretty much faceless crustaceans, what with all their armor and such. They may not have been quite as alien as some of the actual space aliens, but they showed little human side, and were rather brutal by current standards. Was crime in that world such that they needed to act that way?

It might be interesting to chart the portrayal of police in various movies over the years. Have the cops gotten less human, more brutal, more remote from ordinary people? Is it more common to show the authorities as corrupt or evil, or to show criminals as so powerful that the police must dehumanize themselves to cope?

If so, is it true for movies in general, or only for specific types of films? Perhaps there's no real overall trend other than more diversity?

"Life is like that sometimes." Life is like all sorts of things, except when it isn't. Sometimes life isn't like anything. It depends on what kind of life it is. And I would think tube worms would have very different perceptions of all this, assuming they perceive at all. Do tube worms worry about their vent eventually running dry? Or do they just take things as they come? They can't take it one day at a time because there's no "day" or "night" in those deep ocean depths. Are there any sorts of rhythms? Can they feel the tiny pressure changes of the tides? There might be variations in the rate of infall of detritus, but is that enough to base rhythms on? If not, their idea of time (if they had brains to have ideas with, which they probably don't) will be quite different from ours. Strange.

Letters, we get letters ...

Date: Fri, 30 May 1997 14:52:23 -0700 
From: "Charles R. Lembke" <> 
"And as I write this a helicopter is flying over. Or maybe it's a UFO 
pretending to be a helicopter.  If so, it's fairly convincing, at least 
if you don't look.  I didn't look, so I don't know how convincing it is 
if one does look.  Probably pretty convincing, or too many people would 
spot it and blab.  Since I haven't heard lots of blabbing about fake 
helicopters, it's probably a pretty good imitation.  Or maybe it's 
actually a real helicopter.  I wouldn't put it past those UFO space 
aliens to fly around in real helicopters to fool people." 
I guess technically, since you didn't examine the helicopter to make 
sure it really was one, it was still UFO.  At least as far as you were 
concerned, it was Unidentified. 
The pilot(s) would know the identity of the craft, but this would 
usually be the case.  Indeed, that the pilots can identify their craft 
never seems to count for purposes of designating something a UFO. 
The notion of a UFO pretending to be a helicopter suggests some 
interesting possibilities.  Perhaps at some time in the past, before the 
UFO pilots had worked out the details, they would have made occasional 
mistakes.  UFOlogists might profitably scan the literature for accounts 
of helicopers that appeared to be making a jet engine sound, or biplanes 
that sounded like steam locomotives, or hot air balloons that sounded 
like turbine prop airplanes, or other anomalous aircraft. 

Interesting thoughts on searching for reports of anomalous aircraft. I'd previously had vaguely similar thoughts about things like a "747" flying along tilted at some angle that a real 747 couldn't fly at.

But what sticks in my mind at the moment is whether some pilots might in fact not know what kind of craft they're piloting. Suppose all that planet's craft were highly computerized, with a standard control room containing a standard joystick or something that gets computer-translated to appropriate commands to ailerons or helicopter rotors or antigravity units or whatever so pilots don't need to be retrained for each new model. Then if the pilots weren't paying attention on the way into the control room they might not know what they were flying. But wouldn't most pilots have enough human curiosity to at least take a peek outside to see what their craft looked like? Maybe not if they're not human.

                            Santa Ana

Warm winds make the night itself seem restless.
The trees toss and turn as they cannot get to sleep:
They wish they had the freedom to go running through the night
Like the leaves they often lose
To a wanderlust
That they
Can only dream of.  

Warm winds make the night itself seem restless.
A whispered invitation not to try to sleep:
To let the wind caress me running naked through the night
Like the gentle touch of lovers,
Lovers past
Or yet-to-be
I often dream of.

                                        Thomas G. Digby
                                        written 0340 hr  5/29/78
                                        typed   0505 hr  9/16/79
                                        entered 1245 hr  4/09/92

                                -- END --

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