Latourian Avian Data Transfer
I bumped into a fairly old request for comments (RFC), from 1990 (and a corrected one from 1999) titled ‘IP over Avian Carrier with quality of service‘. Perplexed? You should be. This document is describing a proposed Internet protocol using migrating birds as data carrier! Crazy, but it was released in the 1st of April, and intended as a joke. The ‘Overview and Rational’ section on the 1990 edition:
Avian carriers can provide high delay, low throughput, and low
altitude service. The connection topology is limited to a single
point-to-point path for each carrier, used with standard carriers,
but many carriers can be used without significant interference with
each other, outside of early spring. This is because of the 3D ether
space available to the carriers, in contrast to the 1D ether used by
IEEE802.3. The carriers have an intrinsic collision avoidance
system, which increases availability. Unlike some network
technologies, such as packet radio, communication is not limited to
line-of-sight distance. Connection oriented service is available in
some cities, usually based upon a central hub topology.
[You've got to love the 'intrinsic collision avoidance system']
and later on, in the ‘Discussion’ section:
Multiple types of service can be provided with a prioritized pecking order. An additional property is built-in worm detection and eradication. Because IP only guarantees best effort delivery, loss of a carrier can be tolerated. With time, the carriers are self-regenerating. While broadcasting is not specified, storms can cause data loss. There is persistent delivery retry, until the carrier drops. Audit trails are automatically generated, and can often be found on logs and cable trays.
and, from the 1999 one:
Ostriches are an alternate carrier that have much greater
bulk transfer capability but provide slower delivery, and require the
use of bridges between domains.
The service level is indicated on a per-carrier basis by bar-code
markings on the wing. One implementation strategy is for a bar-code
reader to scan each carrier as it enters the router and then enqueue
it in the proper queue, gated to prevent exit until the proper time.
The carriers may sleep while enqueued.
The amazing thing is that, a couple of years later (2001), a bunch of Norwegians decided to actually implement the idea in real life.
Having prepared the pigeons to ping with IP packets tied to their legs and released them, the team describes the first return of a carrier, and the measurement of its round-trip time:
the first return pigeon arrived. The packet was carefully removed from the leg, unrolled and scanned. After manually verifying the OCR and correcting the few mistakes (gocr is quite good, but it *did* have problems recognizing F’s in my end), the packet was accepted as a valid packet, and there was much cheering about what we saw:
64 bytes from 10.0.3.1: icmp_seq=0 ttl=255 time=6165731.1 ms
The remaining pigeons arrived simultaneously. Two of them didn’t have any IP packets, though, it turned out that things had been so busy at the other end that they forgot to shut the pigeon cage, and the remaining two pigeons escaped without an IP packet. There was only six return pigeons, thus we got four ping replys, with ping times varying from 3211 to 6389 seconds. I guess this is a new record for ping times…
The implementation was declared a success.
According to the Wikipedia page of this story this method is actually used at times for data transfer, having birds carry USB drives or microSD cards.
Now, it is a silly (and yes, somewhat nerdy) thought experiment/real experiment, but I think that it is deliciously Latourian in spirit and there is no better mental image to figure actor-network theory, the production of an hybrid entity, and specifically the thesis that there is no mediation without translation.