The Go Beep Unit
© 2004 by Robert Krten, all rights reserved.
Professor Windham looked again at the box that had arrived yesterday. It was well packed — about a cubic meter in size; the contents, however, were much smaller. Inside was a shiny metal box, about half a meter in height and depth, and about 20 centimeters across.
As the resident curator of antiquities, it was his job to figure out what it was, and, with luck, to figure out what it did and maybe even restore it to a working state.
"Well, let's unpack it then, and see what we can see," he said to his assistant. "Did they say where it came from, or how old it is? Ah yes... hand me the papers."
Windham looked over the papers. "Found in Ronto crater, good, good," he muttered, "about 100 years old, interesting." He scanned the rest of the sheet — apparently, there were more of these objects there for the taking. Something caught his eye. "Found in original packing crate, looks like it was never used." He smiled — artifacts that hadn't been used were much more likely to have survived intact. He remembered all the time they had spent trying to get other artifacts restored; the weeks they spent with something identified as a "DVD Player", only to conclude that it needed to be fed a particular type of round plastic disc which they hadn't been able to procure. Even then, they were unable to get the device to do anything — there was no apparent display to it, and he suspected it had been damaged. After giving up, they concluded that the "DVD" game must have been quite strange, given that there was no apparent way to interact with the player.
"There's also this other box, Professor. They say it was found right next to it." Windham glanced over to another box, even bigger, which held a cube with a glass front. "Do you think they go together?"
"We'll have to see. Let's get it up on the bench and take a look."
Together, they unpacked both crates, and set the contents on the lab bench. "Wow! Will you look at all those little round plugs on the back!" said his assistant — with a note of dismay in his voice. The more plugs there were, the more things they were probably missing in order to make it work.
A day later, the box was making a beeping sound, but that was about it. Windham and his assistant had carefully opened the box, made a note of the insides, and found a source of power. As with most devices of the day, it was powered by a sinusoidal power source with a frequency of 60 cycles per second. Sinusoidal power sources weren't that common in the lab, but a few had been manufactured, specially for Windham's department.
"I think the first thing we need to do is figure out what all the pieces do," Windham commented unneccessarily. It was standard practice to not only try to restore the artifact, but also to understand how the artifact had been constructed, in hopes of gaining insights into the pre-war technology.
His assistant chimed in, uncertainly, "ummm.. ok, how should we do that? There sure are a lot of pieces..."
Windham put on his pedagogical face, and started with "In the old days, when they were still trying to figure out how the organs and other systems of animals worked, they looked for defects — what did the lack or damage to a particular organ signify for the animal? From that, they could deduce the purpose of that organ. Things got more complicated with DNA, but still the same approach was used. By observing defects in the DNA, they were able to deduce that such and such a gene was responsible for a certain function."
His assistant piped in with, "so we should take out pieces and see what happens without them?"
"As good a start as any," smiled Windham. "Observe the behaviour with all the pieces in place, and then take them out one-by-one and see what ceases to function. Then we can conclude that the just-removed piece was conducive to that function."
The assistant started with "well, about the only thing it seems to do right now is beep when we give it its sinusoidal power. Probably a good place to start."
When they reopened the box, they found to their dismay that only a few items were easily removable. One, a square ceramic block, had the letters "486" stamped on it. "Might as well start with that one."
The box no longer beeped.
"Huh. Interesting. Ok, label that as the 'go beep' piece, and we'll move on."
Putting the little ceramic square back in its place, they next found a few sticks, about 1 x 10 centimeters, and only a few millimeters thick. "These look like they'll come out easily," noted the assistant.
The box still beeped, even when all the sticks were removed. Interestingly, when just a few of the sticks were removed, the box only beeped once, but with all the sticks out, the box beeped several times. "Are these perhaps 'beep inhibitors'?" wondered Windham out loud. "Removing all of them seems to allow the box to beep more."
"Professor?" interrupted his assistant, "I was just looking at the plugs on the back of the box and the glass box, and there's a set that looks like it goes together. It's a 15-pin plug and there's just the one on the box, and just the one on the glass box..." his voice trailed off, hoping the professor would allow him to plug the two together.
"Why not? We're not getting any further with this."
With the two boxes connected together, and more sinusoidal power applied, the two men let out a gasp.
"Look at that! What is it?" The glass box now showed a coloured pattern that looked like a square box with four different colours in each of the quarters of the box. "Must be some kind of sign! Perhaps it's an entertainment device?"
Windham wasn't so sure... "It doesn't look very entertaining, I mean, just a square with four different — Look! It's changed!"
Now the glass was displaying a blue background, with various little glyphs all over the background.
Stunned, they let the box sit like that for quite some time as they tried to understand what the box was showing them.
Windham stood up suddenly, "Did you see that?" He was excitedly pointing to where one of the glyphs had broken away from the others, and was starting to fall down towards the bottom of the screen.
His assistant squinted, "Yah, that's pretty weird... Look! There goes another! Oh no, I think we better turn it off before they all fall off!"
Panicked, they reached for the power cord connecting the box to the sinusoidal source, and accidentally hit the box.
Instantly, all the glyphs were restored to where they originally were.
"Spooky! It fixed itself!" cried the assistant.
The day had arrived. The day of the school field trip to the Museum of Antiquities.
Jem was the first one to see the newly opened "Ronto Crater — 100 years ago" exhibition.
A rectangular box and a square box with a glass front were the first exhibit. Jem read the plaque:
"Found in Ronto Crater near the CNTow in the year 107AW. This artifact appears to be an early game system, displaying falling glyphs. By pressing the box, the glyphs stop falling, and are restored to their original positions. Each player selects a row of glyphs, and presses the box when their row starts falling.
The technology is based on a '486' go-beep unit (GBU), and has several go-faster / beep-inhibitor (GFBI) sticks that control both the speed of operation (removing some GFBI sticks causes the game to operate slower, while removing all of the GFBI sticks causes the box to beep more). The exact mechanism of the GFBI and the game interaction isn't yet known, as removing all of the GFBI sticks prevents the game from functioning."
Weird, wild stuff, thought Jem to himself, as he wandered over to the next exhibit.