Saturday, August 25, 2012

Partially Inverted Sequence

I’ve always thought that the evolution of communications over distance went something like this: smoke signals, carrier pigeon, semaphore, telegraph,  land line telephone, fax, cell phone, and then today’s digital communications (text, images, audio, video) over the Internet.  I was recently surprised to learn, however, that the sequence above is partially inverted!

The fax technology with which we are all familiar involves the transmission of scanned printed material (text and/or images) over telephone lines.  This particular technology was introduced by the Xerox Corporation in the 1960’s, obviously much later than the invention of the telephone in the 1870’s.  So we assume that the telephone came first, and then, much later, the fax.  However, that is not the case at all!  In fact, fax machines were around long before the telephone came along.  Early faxes simply used different methods of transmission.

From Wikipedia’s article on Scottish inventor Alexander Bain:

Bain worked on an experimental facsimile machine in 1843 to 1846. He used a clock to synchronise the movement of two pendulums for line-by-line scanning of a message. For transmission, Bain applied metal pins arranged on a cylinder made of insulating material. An electric probe that transmitted on-off pulses then scanned the pins. The message was reproduced at the receiving station on electrochemically sensitive paper impregnated with a chemical solution similar to that developed for his chemical telegraph. In his patent description dated 27 May 1843 for "improvements in producing and regulating electric currents and improvements in timepieces, and in electric printing, and signal telegraphs," he claimed that "a copy of any other surface composed of conducting and non-conducting materials can be taken by these means". The transmitter and receiver were connected by five wires.

Alas, Bain’s invention, although later improved by Frederick Bakewell, produced poor images and was not commercially viable.  However, then came Italian physicist Giovanni Caselli with his Pantelegraph.  From Wikipedia:

Caselli developed an electrochemical technology with a "synchronizing apparatus" (regulating clock) to make the sending and receiving mechanisms work together that was far superior to any technology Bain or Bakewell had.  The technology is relatively simple. An image is made using non-conductive ink on a piece of tin foil. A stylus, that is in the electrical circuit of the tin foil, is then passed over the foil where it lightly touches it. The stylus passes with parallel scans slightly apart. Electricity conducts where there is no ink and does not where there is ink. This causes on and off circuits matching the image as it scans. The signals are then sent along a long distance telegraph line. The receiver at the other end has an electrical stylus and scans blue dye ink on white paper reproducing the image line-by-line, a fac simile (Latin, "make similar") of the original image.

Caselli’s invention was implemented in “the first commercial telefax service between Paris and Lyon in 1865, some 11 years before the invention of telephones.”

So not only does the fax predate the telephone, but fax transmission media evolved from direct wire (Bain in 1846), to telegraph lines (Caselli, 1865) and to wireless via radio (RCA in 1924) long before Xerox introduced fax over telephone lines in 1964.  Interestingly, the radio facsimile developed by RCA in the 20’s “is still in common use today for transmitting weather charts and information to ships at sea”.

I had no idea!

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Why? provides seven definitions for the word “why”: one as an adverb, three as a conjunction, two as a noun and one as an interjection.  All are interrelated and have to do with the reasons for things, except one.  The interjection.  This is the one that consternates me (and, hopefully, consternates you as well).  Why would a word whose meaning is related to the reasons for things be  “used as an expression of surprise, hesitation, etc., or sometimes a mere expletive”?

For example, why is the word “why” used in the following manner:

“Why, thank you!”

Or (from Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White, also of “The Elements of Style” fame):

“Why, how perfectly simple!” she said to herself.

Granted, the use of “why” as an interjection is scarce in contemporary conversation, and is sometimes used to depict dialogue as dated in TV shows, such as this SNL sketch, which uses such “Three Stooges”-style phrases as “why, I oughtta pound you”, to help set the scene in the 1930’s.  James Stewart uses “why” as an interjection repeatedly in 1946’s “It’s a Wonderful Life”.  But why did the word “why”, which dates back prior to the year 900 and derives from the Old English hwæt, wind up being used as an expression of mild surprise, beginning around 1510?

Although I was unable to find a definitive, authoritative answer, I did find plausible speculation from an apparently reputable source, user Cerberus, who is ranked 11th in all-time reputation on the English Language and Usage site from the Stack Exchange network of Q&A websites.  The esteemed Cerberus holds that “why”, used in a rhetorical sense, evolved into “a mere interjection of surprise”.  I will use my own sentences to explain the evolution below, based upon Cerberus’s logic:

First, used as part of a rhetorical question: “We’d better take an umbrella tonight.  Why is that?  Because it’s pouring!”

Then, used on its own as the rhetorical question reduced to its essence: “We’d better take an umbrella tonight.  Why?  Because it’s pouring!”

It makes sense that it then developed into a method of calling attention to the statement which follows it: “We’d better take an umbrella tonight.  Why, it’s pouring!”

Still a rhetorical question, but it seems likely that it would evolve from there to the interjection usage.  The only thing we know for sure is that, whichever way this happened, it took around 600 years!

Thursday, August 16, 2012

This.... sucks!

I admit it, I’ve been called a “nerd”.  I’ve taken it as a serious compliment, attaching to it its more contemporary meaning: “an intelligent but single-minded person obsessed with a nonsocial hobby or pursuit: a computer nerd”, and not its original meaning “a stupid, irritating, ineffectual, or unattractive person”.  (I know what you’re thinking: I’m attaching the wrong meaning, but let’s just leave it there, shall we?)  I’ve also been called a “geek”, and once again, am flattered because I take it to mean: “a computer expert or enthusiast”, and not: “a carnival performer who performs sensationally morbid or disgusting acts, [such] as biting off the head of a live chicken”, the word’s original meaning.  What were insults just a few years ago are now compliments.  Words evolve.

As Seth Stevenson puts forth in this great article on, (incorporating the references above), it’s time to divorce the wonderfully succinct descriptor “sucks” from its alleged vulgar roots.  I say alleged because, as Stevenson indicates, it is entirely possible that the word’s contemporary connotation did not even originate from fellatio:'s not even clear that sucks has naughty origins. We might trace its roots to the phrase sucks hind teat, meaning inferior. Or there's sucks to you, a nonsexual taunt apparently favored by British schoolchildren of yore.

Or, from an anonymous contributor to who apparently was there at the exact place and time the phrase came to be used as we know it today, we have this:

only [sic] one meaning fits the time that the phrase became a popular expression, not old England or [sic] something in the backseat [sic] of a ‘55 Chevy.  as [sic] a Vietnam vet i [sic] was there when and where it started.  we [sic] all used the expression “it sucks” to describe something really bad as in a ‘sucking wound’ is [sic] a open [sic] chest injury where the lung was exposed to air and sucking noise was what you might hear just before someone dies.  thus [sic] a sucking sound is a number 10 as in a bad, bad thing.

But regardless of whether the origin of “sucks” was vulgar, its usage today, as Stevenson so effectively argues, is simple, concise and emphatic.  And it joins “nerd” and “geek” as expressions that have taken on new meanings to such an extent that most people using them are unaware of their original meanings.  I cannot agree more with Stevenson when he concludes:

Personally, I wish sucks could escape from its slangy ghetto. It's a terrifically punchy little syllable, with that "k" lending it the proven Starbucks/Nike/Kinko's power of the "sticky consonant." And take heart, sucks-haters. Soon enough, another bit of slang will come along and gain entrance into our common language, and it will be vastly more offensive than sucks ever was.

Monday, August 13, 2012

The Cloud: Back to the Future

It’s hard to believe, but when I joined the workforce in the early ‘80s, the fax was just beginning to be used in business, rapidly replacing the telex which was, amazingly, still widely used at the time.  And, although the Apple II and IBM PC had already been introduced, and I actually had the pleasure of working on Visicalc on an Apple II for a glorious summer job a few years before, personal computers were few and far between at International Savings and Loan Association (ISL), the South Florida financial institution where I got my first real job.  “Dumb terminals”, though, were everywhere.

Relatively inexpensive hardware devices that were connected directly to mainframe computers, dumb terminals would, through archaic commands, make queries of the mainframe  and return results.  The terminals had neither processing power nor data storage capabilities of their own; they simply allowed users to access the data on the mainframe computer.  The mainframes were maintained by professionals at Data Processing departments (predecessors to today’s IT departments).  ISL wasn’t large enough to afford a mainframe computer of its own, so our dumb terminals were connected (via things like RS232 and leased lines) to Florida Informanagement Services, an Orlando company that provided data processing services for smaller savings and loan institutions.

Suddenly, personal computers began appearing on people’s desks!  These early machines, made by Apple, IBM and the so-called “clone makers” (Eagle, Compaq, Franklin, et al.) differed from dumb terminals because they had their own processing power and data storage capability, and, initially, were not connected to anything at all.  With these PCs, users had the entire computer at their disposal to do with what they pleased, but if they wanted to share their work with anyone it had to be done via floppy disks or printed copies.  But, for the first time, small businesses could actually afford real computers of their own.

The next step, of course, was networking.  By 1988 I had left ISL and started a new small business.  There were four of us at the office, each with a PC-compatible computer on his desk.  One magical day a couple of guys came out to our office, physically connected the computers to each other and installed Novelle Netware software on each of them.  Our computers were now able to communicate with each other, and we could install multi-user software that would allow all of us access to the data.  Small office servers could be put into place to make files and other services available to all users.  Amazing stuff.

Although online services such as America Online (later known as AOL) and CompuServe had been available since the late ‘80s, and I had actually been an early CompuServe user, in the early 90’s the Internet began its inexorable march toward commercial ubiquity in earnest, beginning with the emergence of email as a business communication tool, and later with the availability of the world wide web.   Computers suddenly needed not only to be connected to each other at the office, but also to the Internet.  This connection was initially achieved via dial-up modem at per-minute rates, later at flat monthly rates and, finally, via today’s broadband technologies, DSL, cable, and fiber.

Once computers and networks were permanently connected to the Internet, what we today call “cloud computing” became possible.  In fact, I was an early believer in this concept, and in 2000 moved my business’ accounting data from our office server to an online service known then as NetLedger (later known as NetSuite), where it remained until I dissolved the company just a few months ago.  To me, NetLedger was the harbinger of the future architecture of computing, and for the next few years I focused on only using technologies where the data was cloud-based and accessible from any computer, regardless of operating system.  So I changed my email protocol of choice from POP to IMAP, and later just accessed it through the web itself.  I moved all of my local files, including photos, to Dropbox, made extensive use of Google Docs (now Google Drive), moved my music to Amazon’s Cloud Drive, and used other services such as Evernote, Mint, and Gliffy.  I stopped making presentations on Powerpoint and Keynote, and instead used the online service Sliderocket.  By around 2006, basically the only software I used on any of my computers was the browser!  I made a conscious effort to live in the cloud, but my children and all of their friends naturally gravitated to the same concept without even knowing it, since from the beginning of their computing experience all of their “stuff” was online on services such as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.

The way I see it, the architecture of computing has come full circle during my 28 year career.   I started out with a dumb terminal connected to a far-off server.  Then I got my own computer, with its own processing power and storage, but isolated from other computers.  Then my computer got networked and was able to communicate with nearby computers.  Finally, my computer became part of the network of networks that is the Internet, and this allowed it to access all sorts of servers all over the world; servers which, in my particular case and that of a growing number of users, store and process all of my data.  So my computers, albeit exponentially more powerful than all those that came before them, are basically acting as.... well, dumb terminals!

Obviously there is a huge difference between a monochrome terminal connected to a limited, single-purpose server running software that only specially trained users can use, and computers in all shapes and sizes (desktops, laptops, smartphones and tablets), with amazing high resolution full color displays, having access to literally billions of resources that users can take full advantage of with little or no training.  But in the sense of their overarching principle they are the same: devices used to connect to professionally maintained servers, where the data and processing power reside.  The main difference is that, although the servers are still maintained by professionals, unlike the terminal days of yore we users now have the power to access whichever servers we want, via web browsers or apps, and have the choice of whether to keep our data on our own devices, in the cloud, or both.  As an example, I could have written this essay on my computer using any of a myriad word processing apps, and set up my own web server to publish it, thus using the storage and processing power of my own computer.  Instead, I used various computers to write, edit and proofread the essay on Google Docs, and then published it on Squarespace.  The file never touched any of the computers I used to create it!

We’ve come back to the future, but now, we have choice.  The best of all worlds.  Or, at least that’s what we think today.  I wonder what we will think in another 28 years!

Thursday, August 9, 2012

eBooks and Inertia

I read my first electronic book in 1998, Stephen King’s outstanding novella, “Riding the Bullet, on my brand new Rocket eBook.  Mind you, although the Rocket was marketed as being “about the size of a paperback book”, it weighed 22 ounces, considerably more than, for example, this paperback which is probably about average and weighs in at 13.1 ounces.  The device got pretty hot after a while, and the screen was, by today’s standards, horribly low resolution and garishly backlit.  To get a book onto the Rocket you first had to download it onto your computer (after installing special software on it) over the not quite yet ubiquitous Internet, then connect the Rocket to the computer’s serial port (remember those?).   Comparing it to today’s $79 Amazon Kindle, which weighs less than 6 ounces, is like comparing a 1919 Model T to a  2013 Audi A8.

But how I loved that Rocket eBook!  After “Riding the Bullet”, I read many more books on it, including Dan Brown’s “Digital Fortress” and “Angels and Demons”, always enduring the curious looks, raised eyebrows and inevitable questions I would get from strangers who had no idea what that strange contraption in my hands was.  I, on the other hand, was sure that the end of paper books was clearly at hand, and that hardcovers and paperbacks would disappear in a matter of months.  Indeed, I kicked myself because I had actually thought of an electronic book reader years before and could not believe that the NuvoMedia people (makers of the Rocket eBook) had beaten me to it!  My vision, though, came before the advent of the Internet, so I imagined that Barnes & Noble and their ilk would sell tiny memory chips, containing books, that one would purchase and insert into “readers” similar to the Rocket.

I was far off on my prediction, though.  Not only did the Rocket eBook fail, but here we are, 14 years later, and just now, for the first time, net sales revenue from eBooks surpassed that from hard cover books in the first quarter of 2012, according to Galleycat.  The same article indicates that revenue from paperback books was, wait for it, still higher than that from eBooks during the same period.

How can it be that we are able to instantly download inexpensive books to all sorts of amazing, reasonably priced devices, have literally hundreds of books at our fingertips in a reader weighing less than 6 ounces, have our choice between gorgeous full color screens of various sizes or E Ink devices offering reading experiences almost exactly like reading a paper book, and yet, still, we read more books on paper than on electronic media, and our children still lug around those instantly obsolete bricks we call textbooks? Obviously it’s easy to think of a few reasons why this is the case: eBooks may disrupt the outdated business models of some major players in the industry, some people prefer the feel of paper books, sadly not everyone can afford even a $79 ebook reader.  In other words, (or, actually, word), Inertia.

But given the lightning fast proliferation of other technologies such as mobile phones and the Internet itself I’m still puzzled by the glacial pace of eBook adoption.  I’ll leave you with this comparison to consider:  I believe that the advantages afforded by eBooks over paper books are at least as important (if not much more) than the advantages that the automobile offered over the horse and buggy.  Moreover, the transition from paper books to eBooks is much less jarring than that from horse-drawn vehicles to self-powered cars. Yet although large-scale production-line manufacturing of affordable cars did not begin in the U.S. until 1902 by 1910 (only 8 years later!) the number of automobiles had surpassed the number of buggies.  My Rocket eBook was released in 1998, and it was by no means the first eBook.  The Amazon Kindle has been around for 5 years.  Yet, hardcover books and paperbacks combined outsold eBooks by 87.5% in the first quarter of 2012!  Almost twice as many paper books as eBooks!

Inertia indeed.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

How do you do?

I’ve always wondered about the formal greeting, “How do you do?”.  What, exactly, does this mean?  How do you do what?  What sense does this make?  It seemed like something was missing at the end of the phrase, or that the phrase was just wrong.

As it turns out, the phrase makes perfect sense when taken in the proper historical context.  It all goes back to the early meaning of the verb “do”, which has been used since the 14th century to mean “prosper, or thrive”.  So, in the 15th and 16th centuries, people would ask each other “How do you?” in the same sense as they ask each other today “How are you”?  However, at the time, the phrase “How do you” was used literally, as a query about health, and not as a greeting.  The change in usage from a specific query to a general greeting was gradual, and the greeting usage did not become widely used until the 18th century.

OK, but why the second, final “do”?

Here there is no absolutely definitive answer, but a probable one.  By the 18th century, when “How do you?” had become a commonplace greeting, there had been a change in the accepted form of expression.  For example, the medieval “wither goest thou” became “where are you going”.  So “How do you” sounded antiquated, and was “updated” to “How do you do”.

So the origin of the formal greeting “How do you do?” is clear, yet it begs the question, why did this query about another’s health evolve into a greeting?  Using a wide-ranging question as a greeting seems awkward, since the one querying is not really expecting an actual answer, but instead a meaningless positive response and a reciprocal query/greeting.  Imagine if, at a formal event, you’re asked “How do you do?”, and you actually respond truthfully about the state of various aspects of your health!  Even when we use an actual greeting, such as “hi”, “hello”, or even “howdy” (which interestingly is probably a contraction of the early “how do ye”), it’s invariably followed by an insincere query or two.  The greeting process thus becomes a greeting, followed by a few meaningless queries and rote answers before the actual conversation begins.

Interestingly, many science fiction aliens and future humans simply and elegantly greet by actually saying “Greetings”, implying that science fiction writers feel we will one day move on from our almost comical greeting rituals.  Only time will tell.

[I found most of the material regarding the origin of the phrase “How do you do?” in this article on  The Phrase Finder website.]