Thursday, February 28, 2008

Quotation for the Day

And speaking of the telephone, I just came across this...

For a list of all the ways technology has failed to improve the quality of life, please press three.
Alice Kahn

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Exchanging Numbers

and my number is
Beechwood 45789
You can call me up and have a date
Any old time

I was in a fast food joint the other day for lunch. The Muzak in the background was a string of 50's Rock and Roll oldies to go with the Faux-Diner decor. The song that caught my ear was "BEechwood 4-5789" by the Marvelettes. (If you are a little older, maybe the song of choice is PEnnsylvania 6-5000). The song somehow triggered memories of my early childhood days when our own telephone number in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan started with the exchange named MElrose. That got me to wondering about exchange names: where they came from, how they were derived, how unique they might be.

My first stop was Wikipedia, which was somewhat helpful. In the early days, phone system switching (e.g., connecting the caller with the receiver) was handled through operators using patch cords to literally plug the two phone lines together. With automatic switching equipment, most local calls could be completed without an operator. A geographic area would be covered by a telephone exchange that might cover up to 10,000 numbers. When more people subscribed to the phone system, the limitation in the number of unique, short (four or five digit) numbers became a problem. Hence, a group of subscribers in one physical exchange were given an exchange name (such as MElrose) that made it easier to remember than a longer, seven digit phone number. Instead of seven digits, the subscriber's number was the exchange name plus five digits (BEechwood 4-5789) the "B" stood for 2 and the "E" for 3, hence 234-5789. Using exchange names greatly expanded the number of available phone numbers. (Our more modern equivalent was the addition of area codes and we seem to keep needing to subdivide areas into more area codes for just the same problem: not enough unique phone numbers.) The exchange names also were selected to be phonetically clear on otherwise low audio quality lines. "No, no, I said MELROSE not MILHOUSE" (This brings to mind the ever-present cellphone conversation, "Can you hear me now....?")

Most of the exchange names went the way of the old black dial telephone in the 60's and 70's. But like so many other technology memorabilia, there is a group of people out there working hard to assemble a huge database of old exchange names for towns and cities all over the country. I learned from this database that my home town had two exchanges: MElrose-2 and MElrose-5. That would seem about right for a town of 15,000 people. Check out your own town here. This group is even trying to get people to back-convert current numbers to an old exchange name. The telphone prefix for my current address starts with 941. Hmmm...WIlson, WIndsor? How about something more current like "WIi" for the game machine?

Now if I could just get that stupid Marvelettes song out of my head.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

The Roads More Traveled

I live in Florida during the winter. My house is about two miles from I-75. If I go south on the Interstate, I will reach the end of this highway in about 200 miles at Hialeah, FL. From Hialeah, it is 1785 miles to the terminus of the highway in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan. I spent most of my childhood growing up in the "Soo". My dad still lives there.

We take the Interstate highways for granted. They connect us in a highway grid that lets us get to virtually any area of the country. According to Wikipedia, there are 46,837 miles of road in the Interstate Highway system. The need for the highway system emerged from experience during World War I when the army found that the railroads could not transport all the needed supplies to support the war effort. Truck convoys were added to supplement the railroads. I can just imagine what that must have looked like in 1917. In 1919, Lieutenant Colonel Dwight D. Eisenhower set off from Washington on a coast-to-coast truck convoy to San Francisco to explore highway readiness in the event of another war. His experience then, coupled with his later experiences with the autobahn in Germany during World War II convinced him of the need for a high-speed national highway network. At the urging of President Eisenhower, legislation was passed in 1956 to begin the network and it was completed in 1991. The cost was originally projected to be $25 billion. The 2006 estimate for the cost of the system is $425 billion.

I was prompted to write about the highway system while reading a book called, Are We Rome? by Cullen Murphy. Murphy draws many parallels between the United States and the Roman Empire. Murphy points out that this is not a new idea. The Roman Republic was, in fact, the model of the Founding Fathers. Murphy makes the comparison of the Roman road system to the Interstate highways. The Roman system at its peak consisted of about 53,000 miles of roads. The rationale for the two systems was the same: a way to rapidly move military supplies. The Roman mileposts were all tied to a Golden Milepost in the Forum in Rome. The Zero Milestone of the Interstate system lies in the Ellipse in Washington, just south of the White House. The old saw, "All roads lead to Rome." was based not only on a political reality but an engineering one as well. The same could certainly be said for Washington, DC today.

The Interstate highways make our lives immeasurably easier (disregarding the traffic jams around major cities). But they need to be maintained, not something we seem to be fond of doing. Just last summer, the I-35 Bridge over the Mississippi River collapsed in Minneapolis. The cause appears to be a combination of design flaws and poor maintenance. There is very little glory in a keeping a good highway system least, until we see it fall apart. The glory is all in the new project, the new bridge, the new interchange. We would do well to take better care of what we already have.

We merely want to live in peace with all the world, to trade with them, to commune with them, to learn from their culture as they may learn from ours, so that the products of our toil may be used for our schools and our roads and our churches and not for guns and planes and tanks and ships of war.
Dwight D. Eisenhower
34th president of US 1953-1961 (1890 - 1969)

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Technology Tribalism

Dad is a "GM Man". Except for one small misadventure into a Ford station wagon in the mid-50's, he has never owned a non-GM car. Over the years, he has owned Buicks, Chevrolets, Pontiacs, and now an Oldsmobile (one of the last of that nameplate). I know other men of my father's generation who were "Ford Men" or "Chrysler Men". It isn't the same today. Sure, you have your Lexus owners, BMW zealots, and the Volvo for the learned among us. But these are not the "company men" of the last generation.

Today, cars seem to be less the center of technology loyalty than, say, computers. I'm a "Mac guy" while my brothers are "PC guys". Or maybe it is PDAs (Treo vs. Blackberry), or even game machines. We somehow have a desire to count ourselves into technology tribes. We need to feel the kinship with others like ourselves that reinforces our choices and our beliefs about both what we use and the (junk) that others mistakenly choose.

I suppose this is just a subset of the more common sort of affiliations that you see in sports teams, nationalities, or even countries. But I kinda miss the days of hearing someone say, "I'm a GM man." I am sure that GM misses those days even more than I do. When I was a kid, I was just sure that my dad knew what he was talking about. I thought that I, too, would be a GM Man (I now own a Chrysler and a Toyota. Sorry, Dad). The world was alright as long as you belonged to the right technology tribe. Boy, does that seem simple now. I know as I write this on my Mac (the best of all computers) that I would never pass such nonsense on to my son and daughter...who also owns Macs.

All American cars are basically Chevrolets.
Herb Caen

Monday, February 4, 2008

Forever New

I've been reading quite a bit lately about ancient history. I just finished a very interesting summary entitled, The History of the Ancient World: From the Earliest Accounts to the Fall of Rome, by Susan Wise Bauer. This was a whirlwind tour in a little less than 800 pages beginning (literally) with the The Flood and ending with the decline of the Roman Empire. It gave me new insight into the idea that power in ancient days was obtained almost universally by the sword. In fact, the king/pharoh/emperor was more often than not murdered by his son/wife/uncle/general in order to take the throne by force. Having read this (very readable) work, it would be easy to take the view that our shared history was simply one of war and violence. But that would be to miss the point of the simultaneous great achievements in art, literature, architecture, and natural philosophy (science) that also emerged from those distant times.

We remain fascinated with the past. We continually go back to dig into almost every aspect of those distant days. For example, I became interested in the Pyramids as a result of reading Bauer's book. The Great Pyramid of King Khufu at Giza is probably the most carefully studied and measured building in human history. The scale and precision of its stone construction boggles the mind. It was built 4500 years ago without the aid of modern tools or instruments and yet it is probably more precisely constructed than ANY modern building.

The accuracy of the pyramid's workmanship is such that the four sides of the base have a mean error of only 58 mm in length, and 1 minute in angle from a perfect square. The base is horizontal and flat to within 15 mm. The sides of the square are closely aligned to the four cardinal compass points to within 3 minutes of arc and is based not on magnetic north, but true north. (from Wikipedia)

It remained the tallest man-made structure in the world for 4000 years until the Lincoln Cathedral in England exceeded its height in 1311. There wasn't a taller building in America until 1885 when the Washington Monument was completed. It is humbling, to say the least.

Another example: The Parthenon in Athens. Built in the Fifth Century, BC it became one of the most architecturally-emulated buildings in the world. The level of craftsmanship is simply exceptional. The Greeks had learned how to compensate for the apparent curvature in large structures built with many parallel lines by slightly curving the columns and structural platforms to deceive the eye into seeing the lines as parallel (known technically as entasis). Nova and the Smithsonian Magazine jointly produced a very interesting program on the efforts to restore this structure. The Parthenon is the model for buildings throughout the western world including our own Supreme Court Building. There is even a complete full-scale replica of the Parthenon in Memphis, TN.

A final example: the Old Penn Station in New York. Built in 1910 (and sadly demolished in 1964), Penn Station took as its inspiration the Baths of Caracalla in Rome. The exterior was modeled after the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin. The architects saw in the structures of antiquity an eloquence in design that millennia have not been able to improve.

The great structures of the past speak to us still. There is something that resonates in their proportions, their symmetry, and their scale that we have only rarely been able to improve upon. The past remains "forever new".