Packet Rat: The Rat rover strays off course

The Rat

Michael J. Bechetti

'There's something so ... retro about all this,' remarked Mrs. Rat as the family gathered around Father Rat's monitor to don 3-D glasses and watch the stereo images from NASA's Spirit Mars rover.

'Gee, Dad,' his oldest offspring said, 'it looks kind of like the back yard last summer after you tried that laser weed whacker.'

The rover mission had the Rat's imagination running overtime, churning up ideas for new agency projects. What other great achievements lay ahead on the high-tech frontier with low-budget, low-power, off-the-shelf technology and clever engineering?

It obviously fired the imaginations of folks at the White House, too. Unfortunately, their thinking gravitated toward low budgets rather than high-tech frontiers.

Although the Rat applauded the presidential goals, the proposed budget didn't exactly blow him away. '$800 million a year?' he queried his department head du jour. 'That's less than the Defense Department's accounting errors last year.'

'That reminds me,' the boss said. 'Our travel budget also seems to have suffered from one too many rounding errors. Looks like you'll have to bag the trip to LinuxWorld. You could always send a robotic rover in your place.'

Of course, the wirebiter mused, a robotic rover wouldn't need a hotel room'just a few hours of undisturbed sunlight or a 120-volt AC socket to recharge. His mental wheels started spinning anew. That evening, he rounded up some gyroscopes, depreciated hardware and SuperGlue, and retired to his laboratory to tinker.

Shortly, the Rat and his offspring emerged from the garage, walking a large model rocket out to a launch pad assembled from a badminton set and a large steel tub.

'So, what's in this thing again?' gasped the middle ratling as he pushed the missile-laden wheelbarrow to its departure point.

'I built a rover out of that robot vacuum cleaner I bought your mom last year,' the Rat replied. 'I added processing power from an old Microsoft Windows CE subnotebook. The webcams will broadcast back a stereo image of the Javits Center's show floor over an old cell phone I wired into it. It'll be just like being there, only with a little less bandwidth.'

The threesome took shelter behind the family car and counted down to liftoff. 'Three, two, one ...' The rocket blasted upward, its Palm Pilot guidance system keeping it locked on a suborbital course for Manhattan. That is, until the guidance program was interrupted by an appointment the Rat had forgotten to erase from its calendar. Suddenly the payload ejected and plummeted to Earth.

'I'm getting a video feed from the lander,' said the oldest ratling, looking at his notebook PC.
'Where is it?' his father asked.

'Well, I'm not sure, but I can see Mom. Based on her expression, I'd say we just landed a probe in the bathroom.'

The Packet Rat once managed networks but now spends his time ferreting out bad packets in cyberspace. E-mail him at [email protected].

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