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Tracking El Niño Site Map
Transmitting from a Fish Bucket
February 19, 1998
By Mark Hoover
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Mark attempting to transmit, via laptop and satphone, from deck of Orca My toys are busted, pickled in salt water, and fried by a generator that shoots blue sparks when it's running. The tropical paradise is about 110 in the shade, and stickier than a SlowPoke sucker after two hours of licking. A famous scientist is right here beside me, on the pitching deck of the Gilligan's Island boat we're trusting our lives to, and he's leaning over the rail, making noises like an Australopithecus. It's pitch dark, waves are slapping the boat around like the Witches' Cauldron at Six Flags, and the captain keeps hitting the GPS receiver against his thigh and saying something that I swear sounds like "Aye Carumba." Get the picture?

The journey to the Heart of El Niño has turned into the journey to the Heart of Darkness. There's one consolation; the cockroaches downstairs must be seasick too.

If you had any idea of what stands between you, reading these words, and me, writing them...if you could picture the path the electrons have taken on the journey from what's left of my computer to yours—scratch that; from what's left of my BRAIN to yours—then you would know that we live in a time of miracles. You see, down here in the pit with El Niño, you learn what you can trust and what you can't. And what I learned to trust was Krazy Glue, a broken pencil, and a bucket I borrowed from Carlos the cook.

In case you haven't noticed, my dispatches to this site have been a bit sparse lately. My editor has sounded a little...strained...during our infrequent phone calls, when I can get the satellite to work for a couple of minutes. That's the biggest problem, by the way: in order to use the internet to move files, you have to stay connected for more than a few minutes, especially at 2400 baud. The problem is that you're bouncing off a satellite in geo-stationary orbit, about 25,000 miles away. And back. With a Sara Lee pie plate for an antenna. There's a lag time due to the speed of light and all that, and the audio bandwidth of the phone is about one octave and....oh, do you really care? Dang thing worked beautifully in Michigan when I tested it. Of course, my backyard doesn't grind and roll like an Elvis imitator at the company Christmas party, either. Believe me, I've read the satphone manual three times now, and can't find anything about how to make real-time azimuth corrections to antenna alignment from the pitching deck of a foundering boat in the heart of El Niño, a thousand miles south-southwest of nowhere. Not one word.

That's where Carlos' bucket comes in. A light bulb flashed in my head...not a halogen lamp mind you, but a little oven bulb, about 5 watts.

First, I dumped out the fish guts. Then I secured the bucket as near midships as possible, close to the axis of rocking (less overall motion), and filled it with water. Then I scavenged a piece of Styrofoam from a broken life vest, and fashioned a float about two inches' less diameter than the bucket. To this I attached the pie plate...err, antenna...and then lined it up with my boy scout compass to 105 degrees, where the satellite was supposed to be. If you're reading this then you know it actually worked. Inertia keeps it close enough on beam that I can sneak onto the net for a couple of minutes if the waves aren't too bad.

The computer started going the second day on the boat. At first I thought it was the heat; it would crash, wipe out the last half-hour's work, and then reboot, as if to shrug its shoulders like Belushi and say "sorry...." If you've ever seen the movie Papillon, then you can picture my "office" on the boat. It's like an Indian sweat lodge, but with cockroaches on the floor and sea spray coming in a cracked porthole. And not as spacious.

Let's just say I am not the world's fastest writer to start with, so I was afraid how this was all playing back at NOVA's home base in Boston. I finally got a voice connection with my editor, but I couldn't tell if the long pauses between sentences were due to satellite lag or something else. Anyway, I told her that I'd figure something out. Besides, we were heading to meet up with NOAA's research ship Ka'imimoana, to film operations for the TOGA/TAO buoy array. I knew they'd have an electronics tech and a diagnostic bench on board. My editor, on the other hand, suggested we try dictation...and then the connection went down.

I took the machine apart, and let everything dry overnight. I burnished every contact with a piece of rag wrapped on a Bic pen, cleaned my hands, and went at it. On a hunch, though, I left the memory module out. That took me from 48 Megs of RAM to eight, just enough to boot and display a message that there is no memory left for anything except shutdown.

Anyway, it worked. Quickly, I pulled it apart again, put the memory back in...and sad Mac. The memory module was fried. I had an eight Meg computer to process digital images, run compression and satcom software, and fire up a word processor and writer's accessories, but at least I HAD a computer. I switched on virtual memory, which would let me work, but that meant the computer would run at a tenth it's normal speed. Gulp.

Loading the 'Orca' in preparation for travel I managed to get another dispatch written, and tried downloading some digital camera images, each of which now took about a half hour to load and display, instead of thirty seconds. The machine would crash, the hours would pass, but it beat the alternative.

Things got worse. Because of the tropical heat, and the load imposed on the hard disk by virtual memory, the internal temperature of the computer rose into the meltdown range. The keyboard started acting strangely, and some keys stopped working. I opened a little program that displays a tiny keyboard next to the main window, and clicked on the keys I was missing when I needed them. It wasn't bad when it was just "q" and "w," but when it got to "s" and "e," I grabbed two more Rolaids, three more Dramamines, and the toolkit.

It took a long time, but I finally found the problem. By shining a flashlight from behind, I found a hairline fissure in a hard plastic ribbon connector on the motherboard. A printed metal wire passed across the crack, and was intermittently shorting. I did not have a soldering iron, and couldn't have soldered it anyway, because of the plastic. Anyway, the keyboard was toast.

In the Sahara, a thirsty animal reaches a point where it realizes there is no oasis, all is lost, and it lies down to make its peace with the Earth. Its bones silently attest the location at which this happens. In my mind, I pictured some scattered circuit boards at about 0 degrees latitude and 95 degrees west longitude. A spot covered by about three miles of water.

One of the crew of our boat is a jolly, unlikely Ecuadorian named Fernando, with a knack for diving and a vast knowledge of the Galapagos. He laughed when I hauled the cybergear aboard, and soon was calling me "deegital man." "Be careful, deegital man," he said, "the sea will eat your computer like a filet mignon."

My troubles became an endless amusement to Fernando. I thought he'd burst his spleen laughing when he saw me transmitting from a fish bucket. But when he saw me typing email...with a mouse...on a picture of a toy keyboard...on a computer wrapped in cooling rags...well, you'd have thought I was George Carlin. The computer was dying, flickering out like the Titanic as it slipped beneath the waves, and my audience couldn't have been happier.

Fernando has a high voice that would be annoying in anyone else. "Hey deegital man," he finally said when he stopped laughing, "what you need is a crayon." By which he meant pencil. The oven bulb flickered on again. How right he was.

I asked Fernando if there was any glue on board. With a grin, he disappeared, and returned with a tiny tube of SuperGlue, anxious for my next caper. I fished around and found a broken pencil, and peeled back the wood. Using my razor, I scraped a pile of graphite dust off the lead. I put a big blob of glue on a piece of foil, quickly stirred the powder into it, and with a toothpick painted over the broken circuit trace. Graphite is highly conductive, and with luck, this repair would bridge the gap. I then splinted the board with a Popsicle stick and some more tape.

I put the computer back together, and just let it lie. I drank a coke. I scanned the sea for the Ka'imimoana, which we were about to meet. I took nine more Dramamine. And then I turned it on. It worked. My keyboard was still fried, but the computer was back like Popeye after a can of spinach. In the worst case, I could still run it from the mouse, which meant I could at least send what I'd already written. And then the Ka'imimoana came into view.

On board, Jim the electronics tech couldn't have been nicer. I told him of my woes, and he shook his head and allowed that the sea is rough on electronics. He looked over my keyboard, hooked it up to an analyzer, and took his best guess...it was toast. But then he said, "follow me." We went up to the front of the ship, climbed through two hatchways, went down an access tunnel. In a tiny room, we pulled a box out of a storage cage. It was filled with broken computer parts...and one extra-large Macintosh keyboard, about ten years old, judging by its yellowing.

Okay, so you figured it out, I'm now typing on what I guarantee was the only spare Mac keyboard in a thousand miles of blue ocean. I've duct-taped it to what's left of my PowerBook, and it looks like I'm playing a xylophone, not using a computer, but it works, and that's the end of the story. By tomorrow we should be moving out of the inter-tropical convergence zone, which means smoother seas, better satellite connections, and a backlog of dispatches.

El Niño, you thought you got me...guess again. You are strong, but I am stubborn. Remember, it's not over until the sad Mac sings.

Editor's Note: Due to the apparently random nature of what material is successfully transmitted and what is not, we received today only the following transmission, rather than more substantive dispatches describing the effects of El Niño in the equatorial Pacific. We expect to receive and post this backlog in the next few days.



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