The same old subroutine
20 January 2003
It was a sunny Sunday afternoon, I was halfway through replacing the lock on my front door, and would you believe it: I ran out of nand gates. Damn. The door build is broken and I've got to go out to the shops.
Not a problem. I've still got some cabling so I pop back inside and open up the house event box, which is just under the stairs. The manual says the fifth port along exports the Person Approaching event, so I stick one end of the magnetic cable onto the small flat grey circle, and join the other end to the Alert trigger. That'll let me, and the police, know if anyone comes into the house.
And just for completeness, on my way out I pause in the garden. Speaking into my hand to capture a message, I loop over my addressbook to make it visible to people I know then drop it in the air. Looking sideways at it, the message is a bright beacon in the hinternet. To my friends it'll repeat an I'm Away message when they approach, but it'll be invisible to everyone else.
There's no real town centre anymore. Since sterling was pegged to the environment cost, using roads to centrally produce goods just to transport them away to market hubs became uneconomic. So everything's produced locally now. Me, I write software to listen to the quantity of social capital. That's the wealth you have by virtue of your friends, the amount of goodness and favours you owe. Social karma.
It turns out skarma goes up and down - mostly up, nowadays - but not smoothly like the tides. It's more like earthquakes. That was something we found out with my programmes. If you listen into the hinternet, you can hear the ripple of favours spreading, creaks when tension's building up as reciprical relationships need to reorganise, and then something gives and there's a giant echoing, resounding booming sound as the net total of friendly relationships expands in bursts; more skarma coming into the world.
To step into the hinternet, you just look sideways and walk. For me that means turning my head sharply to the right (another popular method is to hold your breath; I don't have that configured), but I don't move because I only want a temporary glance, just a quick shout and listen. Nothing looks different, but when I holler Hardware Stores! it's amplified into a world that overlays this one, a world geographically bolted onto RL but filled with data, and programmable.
Now I say there's no centre to the town, but there are still good areas and bad areas. So it's disappointing that of the three shouts I hear back, all of them require crossing the Russian Quarter. Of course, it's Sunday and most the shops are closed. But, I'm out now, and I still need these nand gates.
A sense of direction has never been my strong point. I've got a spare pipe in my pocket, so I give another shout and this time clip the pipe to my ear. When the ironmongers shout back their Over Here's!, instead of remembering which way each was, the pipe reroutes the information to my shoes. The databoot feature activates, and I now I merely need head in what feels like the general downhill direction.
The Russian Quarter is scruffy and run down. Not dangerous, but it's a bit uncomfortable -- there are sticky bits all over the hinternet here and it feels like I'm wading through static. I'm not even sure whether I'm heading downhill or not.
The Government-sponsored hare and tortoise timers light up the main square. Here's how it works: Back in the 1980s, near the end of the Cold War, the Soviet Union were planning to invade the UK. The problem was that Westminster had organised an insurance policy: Nuclear submarines underneath the Arctic icecap would monitor BBC Radio 4 transmissions. If the Today programme, the daily morning news show, was missing for two consecutive days, the submarine commanders would take that as a sign that England lay in ruins, and they would subject London to a nuclear holocaust the likes of which have never been seen.
The Soviet Union, not wanting to invade if they were going to blown to radioactive fragments a mere forty-eight hours afterwards devised a plan: If they recorded enough of the Today programme and rebroadcast it after the invasion, then they'd be safe and when the subs eventually came up for air they could be picked off by satellite.
Problem being, the government heard about this and started researching heavily into recycling technology to keep the vessels underwater longer. And so started an arms race: The Russians have been recording since 1986, and the amount of recorded programmes goes up steadily, one day at a time.
That's the tortoise clock.
The hare clock is the amount of time a submarine can stay underwater away from the spy satellites. This jumps up when there's a big research advance, and remains static inbetween, always tantalisingly ahead of the tortoise.
Since 1986, the USSR has collapsed, the UK's been absorbed into the EU, and we're good friends with Russia. But the problem with sleeper spies and radio-silence submarines is once they're wound up, they run and run.
It's all got rather institutionalised. The families of the Russian spies live in the Russian Quarter, with their tape decks. The families of the as-it-was-UK spies live on in the apartments across the road, making sure the Russians know about the advances in air-recycling technology. It's doubtful they'd actually attack if the tortoise overtook the hare, but you can't be too careful. The scientists work nearby, and broadcast their breakthroughs to the subs on longwave radio, wherever they are. The subs, naturally, don't reply because they're not supposed to exist.
Anyway, the upshot is that the residents are too busy to sweep the pavements or zero the bytes in the local hinternet, so it's all a bit dirty.
My databoots aren't much good here and it feels like the valley has bottomed-out, especially since I find myself just outside a grimy ironmonger.
It's gloomy inside. I'm shocked to see stacks of old televisions, gathering dust. I'm sure I see a sparking CRT at the back. This must be a very old place -- VDUs and unshielded electronics of all kinds were banned over two decades ago when it was discovered they were as bad for society as cigarettes are for individuals.
The human body emits and responds to a very low level electromagnetic field using muscle cells and patterns of neurons and axons. We all play a part in holding this field up, and subtle messages are communicated through it. Disagreements are negotiated through it, the social-emotion analogue is carried in it. It's global. Having all those machines belting out EM day in, day out was thoroughly disrupting the social fabric. Living in those days was like living in a Faraday Cage that cut off skarma. I don't know how people survived.
Actually, we very nearly didn't.
To cut a long story slightly not so long, I took one look at this scrapheap of disruptive technology and scarpered, bottom of the valley or no.
The next hardware store I eventually found didn't have any nand gates either, worse luck. But they did point out that if I was trying to hook up a person recogniser port and my House Owner port to the door lock event (such that if the person scan matched the owner, the door lock event would discontinue and let me in), and if I couldn't figure out how to do it without a nand gate then I'd forgotten my basic boolean logic.
Using de Morgan's theorem, the truth table for a nand gate is just the same is inverting the two inputs, and or'ing them together! Simple, and I don't know how I forgot. Quite embarrassing actually.
I bought a couple of inverters, slim metal discs that sit on the data ports and change true signals to false, and false signals to true. Then I got a t-shaped "or" gate. Its output pipe would read true if either of its inputs read true, both of which I would cable to the data ports.
Then the output connects to the door lock, and I'd have a functioning home security system! Not the way I was planning to spend my Sunday, but a pleasant walk. And by the time I'd grasped my way along the homeward-bound bannister in the hinternet back to my house, the stove had almost finished dinner. So that was nice.
18 December 2003. George writes: This List
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