THE PERIPHERAL ADVENTURE


Alice just knew that she was lost. She had wandered about for what it seemed to her to be hours without seeing anyone or anything that she could recognize. And she was definitely getting very hungry. "If only I had a little cake to nibble on," she said out loud to no one in particular. "I wouldn't even mind if it made me fall asleep or wake up."

"I can give you something to byte on!" said a deep voice behind her.

Startled, Alice jumped and spun around. "Oh my!" she exclaimed, for behind her was the largest head she had ever seen, and the most amazing thing was that the head was not attached to a neck.

"I am sorry I frightened you," said the head. "I have a bad habit of sneaking up on people. Please do not be alarmed. I am really quite nice even though I stick my neck out for nobody!" With that the head grinned a big grin that stretched from ear to ear, although Alice thought that it was a little hard to tell since the head had a great big beard.

"You should try to be a little more careful," Alice at last managed to say. "A soul might have a heart attack."

"Of course, you are right. I would not want anyone's foot to be attacked by a rampaging heart!"

By now Alice's heart had slowed down a bit, and her curiosity got the better of her. "I once knew a head," she said, "But it was the head of a Cheshire cat. Say, are you going to disappear and leave nothing but your grin?"

"I should hope not!" exclaimed the head. "I may be sent somewhere, but it would be such a disaster if I disappeared. Anyway, if it were a young, female cat, it really wouldn't matter."

"Why not?" asked Alice innocently.

"Well, a miss is as good as a smile!"

With this statement his grin faded, but a certain twinkle remained in his eyes as he examined Alice from head to toe. "Say I have never seen you around here before. What's a nice girl like you doing in a place like this?"

Before Alice could explain, the head laughed and continued, "I read that line once and have been waiting for years to use it on someone! Of all the tinned joints on all the boards in all the computer, she walks into mine! By the way, what is your name?"

"Alice," she said, not certain if she wished to continue the conversation. Her Mother had warned her about talking to strangers, but she had never said anything about strangers with just a head.

"I hope that that is one word," replied the head. "I have to be very careful of a lice—head lice—you know." And he laughed a very loud laugh.

Alice was quite taken aback at his suggestion, and thought of telling him that she hoped his beard would become infested because that was such a lousy joke, but thought that that would not be a nice thing at all for a young lady to say. So all she replied was, "Well, it is pronounced differently."

"Makes no difference to me," said the head. "I am only concerned with how things are spelled."

"Why is that?" asked Alice, "My teacher says that pronunciation is very important."

"It's because I am a read/write head," replied the head. Then he added quickly, "Of course the write must be right!"

"Well, if you are a read/write head, then what do you read?"

"Oh, I read lots of things, whatever He tells me to."

"That sounds like a riddle," said Alice.

"Do you like riddles?" asked the head, and before Alice could answer he asked, "What is black and white and red all over?"

Alice smiled. "I've heard that one before. It is an embarrassed zebra!" she replied triumphantly.

"WRONG!" shouted the head. "It is Pravda!"

Alice looked puzzled.

"You know, the Russian newspaper!" he explained. She still looked puzzled, so he added, "Russian—red, newspaper read—red? It's the truth! Oh, never mind!"

Alice felt her head spinning and was about to ask the head if she could sit down when he yelled, "Let's go!"

"Where are you going?" she asked.

"Not, me—we! Don't you want to come too?" he inquired.

"Well, I don't know if I really want to go someplace unless I know where I am going. You see, I have been many places lately, and I feel very confused."

"You could wait in the white house, and wait, and wait, and wait! No time, we must go now. Grab a hold of my beard so you won't get left behind. Hold on tight. If you don't, you'll regret it—maybe not today, maybe not tomorrow, but soon and for the rest of your life!"

Before she could think twice, Alice had reached out and grabbed the head's beard, and they took off in a rush as the head said in a loud voice, "Alice, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship!" Alice wasn't certain but every few seconds it seemed that they flew over rusty railroad tracks. Shortly, the head stopped, and Alice sat down to catch her breath.

"Isn't that exhilarating?" chuckled the head.

Alice, between breaths, replied, "Are," "we," "there," "yet?"

"Oh my no!" replied the head. "We have to wait for the right sector."

"I see, then you are going to do a write?" Alice asked.

"Silly girl. I have to wait, then do some reading this time!

Alice was quite and the head began to sing softly as it watched the ground:

'You must remember back,
   A track is still a track,
A byte is just a byte;
   The fundamental things apply,
As disks spin right.

And when two programs read,
   They still access their need,
On this there is no slight;
   No matter what the future brings,
As disks spin right.

Suddenly he stopped singing and said in a loud voice, "By the way, please keep on the lookout for a nasty parity error." At this the head bent closely to the ground and began to read quietly what looked like words that were zooming by. Alice did not know what to do—she certainly did not know what a parity error looked like. But she kept her eyes wide open and looked all around until she grew quite tired of it. She finally turned to the read/write head to ask him another question, but he was not paying any attention to her.

Finally, the head paused and looked back at her. "All done for a while!" he exclaimed with another big grin.

"What is this that you read or write?" asked Alice.

"That's easy, it is a disk," he replied.

"Is that like a farmer uses for plowing? inquired Alice eagerly. "We read about that in school just last term,"

"Ha, ha, ha!" laughed the head. You got me good with that one! In fact, I would have to say that was outstanding in its field! Ha, ha, ha!"

Alice was quite puzzled, but for once she did not say a word.

"Actually, disks are very social creatures. They always travel around in packs! Ha, ha, ha!"

Alice did not know whether to believe him or not.

"It is a data disk, of course," said the head. "Say, I'll bet you don't know the difference between a disk and a diskette?"

Alice thought a while, then meekly replied, "Well, could a diskette be a little disk?"

"Another good one!" replied the head, "But wrong! A diskette is a female disk! In fact, they had to send me to a doctor once (a head doctor, of course) because I couldn't understand a diskette. I really don't know why, because I have heard that that is a common problem! I mean, disks are so easy to understand, but diskettes? Ha, ha, ha!"

Alice was not at all certain she could really agree with the read/write head, but she was very certain she did not want to argue with him.

"Say, I have another riddle for you! Are you ready?"

Alice was somewhat wary, but she finally said, "Ok!"

"Listen carefully. This is one word!

'Part of a circle, then a circle.
   A thousand green legumes follow.
The fifth is a mother sheep.
   Next is a drink with jam and bread.
That brings us to a most common letter.
   Finally, the last is the fourth with a prop.'"

"That doesn't make much sense to me," said Alice rather thoughtfully.

"Try spelling!" encouraged the head with a grin. "Remember, this is one word!"

"Well, 'A most common letter' must be an E. A mother sheep is a ewe—a U. A green legume is a P."

"Very good!" replied the head. "See, you can get it!"

Alice bent over and drew on the ground with her finger:

  _ _ _ P U _ E _

She looked at it silently for a while then said, "Well, a circle could be an O, and part of a circle could be a C. That gives me:

  C O _ P U _ E _

"Excellent!"

"If we add a prop to the fourth letter..., and a thousand is..., and a drink with jam and bread.... I know what the word is!" she suddenly exclaimed and clapped her hands for joy.

"You are a smart young lady," said the head. "I've got two more for you, but beware, they are not easy:

'Crooked letter before naught begins.
   A failure lettered on a shirt are next.
The fifth looks like a doubled fifth.
   An article with a radius follow.
The end is a witch's fourteen.'

'Goal posts begin, then the top grade.
   A plural "is" leads to five hundred.
The fifth is a pair of female sheep.
   Sixth and next are a repeat of four to the left.
The last tacks on a silent vowel.'"

Alice thought for a while and finally said, "I think I know what they are. The last four letters of each seem to be the same. They are mixed up with your first spelling riddle, but I am not aware of what 'a witch's fourteen' could be. I mean, it appears to be an E, but how do you get that?"

"That's easy. Some computers use hexadecimal for counting, you know, base 16 and all that stuff. In 'hex' as it's called, a 10 is an A, 11 is a B, 12 is a C, 13 is a D, 14 is an E, and 15 is an F."

"I see, a witch can put a 'hex' on things."

"Exactly, and, of course, a witch would have no difficulty with these puzzles—all witches are good at spells! Ha, ha, ha!" he roared with laughter.

Alice thought that this was a bit too much. "By the way, what is a parity error?" she asked.

"Shhhh, don't say that too loudly," the head said, and for once the grin faded from his face. "Those are really undesirable characters that go a bit bad—real bogeymen. Now I can handle most of them unless they are really hardened criminal types, but they do upset Him. I tell him 'Round up the usual suspects!'"

"Oh dear! When you find one, what do you do?" Alice asked.

"Well, it does mean more work. He tells me 'Play it again Sam', and I try once more." And with this the grin returned to the face of the head. "But I have heard that if one is discovered in a chip, it is very bad indeed. The poor little chip is exiled to jail or Siberia or someplace like that. Some of the chips crack under the pressure. They start babbling and act all giddy when they are convicted. All because 'one bad bit spoils the barrel'."

"The poor thing," cried Alice.

"Exactly," replied the head. "That is why they are called silly con chips! Ha, ha, ha!"

Alice was quite confused. She was really having a difficult time knowing when the head was serious or when it was making a joke at her expense.

He continued, "How about this one:

Diskette directory,
   Look out for the keys.
Can you spell that without any d's?"

"That sounds familiar," Alice said after a moment's thought. "Let me see...."

The head really didn't give her a chance to answer. "It is T H A T! That's easy as that!"

"I knew that," she protested. "Really, I did. You didn't give me...."

"You must be quick! She who hesitates is missed—not missus-ed!"

Alice was getting quite fed up with the head's weird sense of humor. "I must go now," she finally exclaimed.

"Oh!" replied the head with another big grin. "If you must." Then after a pause, he continued, "It is the second door on the right! Ha, ha, ha!"

Alice could only shake her head and run off as fast as she could, but the head yelled after her, "Here's looking at you, kid!"



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