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Weekly Geek Bit: Ancient Phone History

21 Mar

um.... Operator?

Last time I talked about dial-up internet, and somewhat tied to that is the history of the phone.  While I didn’t exist when the old school candlestick phones and switchboards were around, I did learn how to call home on a rotary phone (aka bat phone).  They sucked.  For one, the worst part was dialing 9 or 0, because the whole freaking rotary circle had to click around before you could put the next number in.  Waiting was pretty annoying back then, and it was like a prize when you called someone with lots of 1’s, 2’s or 3’s in their number, because you could call it so quick.

By JacksonScott at en.wikipedia, from Wikimedia Commons

There was also the issue before answering machines existed, where people would take messages on note pads “While you were out”.  Answering machines have gotten rid of this once-common household item, though they do still exist in offices if a colleague or secretary picks up the phone for you.  I found a twitter sheet that’s pretty similar to how it would have been without phones.  Enjoy:

Then answering machines showed up, recording messages on cassette tapes (do I need to go into these? Please say no…).  You had to rewind the tape if you wanted to replay the message, and if it filled up, you either had to get a new tape or record over old messages.  I wonder if any old message tapes have made their way to YouTube….
When cell phones came around, my family wasn’t rich enough to get the old-school bricks.  But my mother did get a pretty fat one when they got cheaper, and it was pretty cool.  Still, the price of a phone and the associated plan was way more expensive than a couple quarters in a pay phone.  (who uses pay phones nowadays, anyways?)   For those of you with little experience with pay phones, the secret was to call, and if no one answered, to quickly hang up before the answering machine picked up.  If you did it in time, the phone would refund you your quarter, and you could try again.  Best way to save money, evar?
And there were things called “call boxes” on the highway, used for stranded motorists or accidents, so that they could call emergency services back before everyone had a mobile phone in their car.  Though most have been removed due to cost, I recall seeing one  stretch of highway near Cleveland last year that still had these motorist assistance boxes.  Expect them to go extinct soon, as well.
But back to my family, I put off getting a phone until I was nearly out of college.  We had free land lines in school, and that was enough to call anyone I needed to.  We also used AOL Instant Messenger back then… it was pretty much the way to talk to anyone before Twitter happened.  Hell, I still log into AIM every day, though my buddy list is only 6 long nowadays.  Once I got a phone, I never really needed it until I got a job, and when I traveled.  It was okay, but I didn’t even bother learning to text message until 2007.  I know, I was way behind the curve.
Now, I have an iPhone, am getting deeper into Twitter every month, and honestly look back at my childhood and wonder how insanely different it would be with stuff like kids have today.  I wouldn’t end up crying when I couldn’t get in touch of my dad from school via a pay phone, wondering if he was going to pick me up or if I was stranded.  I would have probably had more friends, but more cyber bullying through my phone, too.  I think that bullying would have kept me offline more than any reason to go online, though, so maybe it wouldn’t have been that different, after all.
What technology did you grow up with?  What is indispensable now, and what do you miss about ‘back in the day’?

Weekly Geek Bit: Dial-up Internet is Entrancing

7 Mar

Hey, why not try a weekly segment other than events to try and get me to post on this blog again? I’ve just about finished over at Brony Magic, so expect more from me here again!

This week’s Geek Topic is dial-up internet.  Those ten years younger than me probably didn’t have to dial into the Internet… it was a pretty annoying process.  First, you had to pick a phone number for the modem to dial into – and some numbers would be full, so you’d have to try other numbers until you got ‘in’. Then, the computer played really annoying fax-like sounds as it dialed into the internet.  And then a bunch of static.  If you got the static, you were in.  And if you were like me, then America Online 2.0 would say “Welcome! You’ve Got Mail!”

Here’s dial-up, slowed down and almost not-annoying sounding.

And everything awesome that was AOL. In a song mash-up.

Do you remember dial-up? What was the worst part about America Online?

The death of the graphing calculator?

9 Jan

iPhone? Nah, ancient calculator!

Last month, Google released a Graphical Math Calculator application to their already brimming toolbox of add-ons.  Now, if an equation is entered into the search box, it will graph the result.


This is amazing, but I had to save $150 for the TI-83 graphing calculator in high school. It was a rite of passage and took serious money management to be able to buy before school started in September.  Now kids can just Google it? Math may have gotten a ton easier, but I have a feeling it will lead to many fewer students interested in pursuing the field, if Google can do it all for them.

Your thoughts? (and yes, picture is not a graphing calculator, but an awesome iPhone skin)

How Bitcoins are related to AIDS Research

27 Sep
This is yet another reason why geeks will rule the world.
According to the Sydney Morning Herald, gamers have solved the structure of an enzyme of an AIDS-like retrovirus that had thwarted scientists for a decade.   With this solution, researchers can develop drugs that target areas of these enzymes (i.e. ‘finding a cure’ for AIDS).   Said scientists’ computers were unable to determine the structures of the amino acids that made up this disease’s enzymes, as computers’ spatial reasoning skills are not yet as advanced as humans’.    (via the Daily What)
In this case, people were asked to help solve the retrovirus enzyme’s structure through playing a  game called Foldit, where gamers competed to determine the amino acid structures in a puzzle-like approach. “To the astonishment of the scientists, the gamers produced an accurate model of the enzyme in just three weeks,” SMH reported.  The gamers won this game so quickly that they were given actual scientific citation credit in the research paper.   This may have been ‘the first time’ that gamers have solved a ‘long-standing scientific problem’. It makes me proud to be a geek, and I’m sure we’ll see more research like this in the future.
Harnessing the power of geeks reminds me of the old screen-saver program, SETI@Home.  Have any of you used it?  The goal was to find alien life by using distributed computing to analyze of packages of radio noise collected from space.  This program was an early attempt by the University of California at Berkley, and was renowned for being able to utilize downtime on computers.  I don’t think it ever worked, and it sounds like the program might be shut down this year.  However, I do remember that I got a digital certificate for my work, and I was able to ‘donate’ my computer’s computation hours toward my High School’s total.  I don’t know if it got my school any prizes or recognition for the effort, but it was worth a try.
District Geek

But I got a shiny certificate!

I believe there are screen-savers that still work on solving problems like finding a cure for cancer and calculating prime numbers to the bazillionth digit.  I’m not sure how much effort is going toward such work nowadays, as it seems computation power can yield profit, as shown through Bitcoin mining.  Called the future ‘digital currency’ by some, Bitcoins are a new form of digital cash that can be used to purchase goods or services.  They can also exchanged with other real and virtual currencies, such as the US dollar and the Linden Dollar.  Bitcoins can -only- be generated through winning a race to process blocks of ‘Bitcoin transaction logs’ which verify Bitcoin purchase, ultimately rewarding the processor with 50 of their own Bitcoins for the effort.  Unlike Seti@Home, these packages are so complex that it would take years for a home PC to solve one block.  Instead, massive computer farms are dedicated to ‘mining’ Bitcoins.
Ok, it’s an 8-bit coin

I italicized -only- above because this process for ‘minting’ Bitcoins is under scrutiny; there is no centralized authority for this currency.  Instead, Bitcoin is underwritten by a peer-to-peer network akin to file-sharing services like BitTorrent, with certificates and public-key encryptions that are signed during transactions ‘to prevent duplication’.  Those blocks of transaction logs that are used to generate more Bitcoins are the only way to verify if the Bitcoins themselves are forged. (Thanks to the Economist.) However, Bitcoin currency exchange systems can be hacked, and many are unsure whether it is worth investing in.  Do any of you mine or trade Bitcoins?  If so, how has the experience been?

UPDATE 9/29: Thank you to all those that commented on this post.  My research on Bitcoins security had holes, and I hope that the edits to the above section correctly address these issues.  Also, now you can buy ‘real Bitcoins‘!

 Tangential economic musing aside, the progress made by gamers and tech geeks alike is impressive.   We’re kicking ass and solving the world’s problems, one win at a time.  Game on.


Windows, the Opera

8 Sep

Okay, it’s just an awesome song made with Windows sounds.  But I love it nonetheless.

Work training is still keeping me busy, but it will only last for another week. Regular posts will resume at that time. :3

Jousting with work

21 Jun

Sorry to all my readers, but this District Geek just started a new job and it’s not treating her well yet.  I’ll be trying to post more in the near future, and am keeping up with the weekend event guides.  I have two research articles in work, and a few articles I’ll review in the meantime.

For now, I give you Segway Jousting! ~

Fear my noble iron horse!

If I Could Talk to the Animals….

10 May
Remember the NBC television show SeaQuest DSV? (That’s Deep Submergence Vehicle, if your memory’s a bit foggy.)  Back in the nineties, this sci-fi show had a brief spell, thanks to the success of Quantum Leap.  SeaQuest, along with Earth 2, was full of hard science and relational drama.  Unfortunately, both of these shows ended poorly with no real closure whatsoever.  Anyways, in SeaQuest, Captain Bridger befriended a Dolphin that they named Darwin.  He is treated as another member of the crew, as the dolphin was able to communicate to the crew through the assistance of a ‘vo-corder’.  I never figured out how it worked, but it was some future device that made the dolphin speak English via a robotic voice.

"Y halo thar!" (via Wikipedia)

Now, scientists are working on a ‘reverse vo-corder’, which a diver can use to communicate with dolphins in their own tongue.  The program will be able to broadcast a selected phrase from human language as dolphin-ese via an underwater pimped out speaker.  This device is called the ‘Cetacean Hearing and Telemetry (CHAT)’.  Clever.  According to Popular Science, “Ultimately, the goal is to serve as a sort of Rosetta stone for dolphins, deciphering the fundamental units of dolphin language.”
Is this step one in SeaQuest?  Who knows.  I do think that dolphins are about as smart as Douglas Adams made them out to be, so hopefully someday we’ll finally figure out what it is that they are actually saying.  Let’s just hope it’s not “So long and thanks for all the fish”.