Transmitting from a Fish Bucket
February 19, 1998
By Mark Hoover previous |
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
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.
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
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.