In Praise of Backward Compatibility

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The garden of nerdiness has many flowers: comic book nerds, computer nerds, fantasy nerds, sci-fi nerds–too many to list. After fifty years I’ve finally recognized my own personal nerd category. I’m an electromechanical nerd. This tendency manifests in an obsession with old telephones, the ability to thread a 16mm projector, fantasizing about the mimeographed version of Root Simple and spending evenings watching films about old office equipment. And I have a reverence, bordering on idolatry, for two machines in particular, the Western Electric 500 telephone and the IBM Selectric typewriter. Note that this obsession is not to be confused with Steampunk, despite my past prediction that we’d see the return of the monocle. No, my fantasy world involves a narrow tie, a cocktail in one hand and a heavy phone handset in the other.

I’ve written about it many times before but I’d like to repeat one of the things that I admire most about the Western Electric 500 and mid-20th century telephony in general: the principle of backward compatibility, an idea taken from computer engineering that you can load new software on old machines. Believe it or not, my 45 year old WE 500 still works (more on that below).

Backward compatibility in the case of phones is as much an economic as technical issue. Our phone system used to be a public utility. Before the Bell system was broken up in 1984, the phone company manufactured and maintained all telephones. They were solidly built, made to last and produced domestically by well paid workers. Because it was in their financial interest, the phone company was conservative about changes that would require new equipment. In the entire history of the Bell system, from 1877 to 1984, there were only five different types of circuits.

Once the phone system was broken up we suddenly had many different new telephones to choose from. But it was a false choice. They were all cheap pieces of crap that didn’t last more than a few years. I can’t tell you how many awful cordless telephones I blew through in the 1990s before I went back to my beloved Western Electric 500.

Similarly, we all get to buy new iPhones every other year. Apple is particularly bad about backward compatibility. Like the Bell system, Apple has total control over its hardware and blocks any attempt to go open source. But unlike the the old Bell system, Apple does not have to answer, for the most part, to any regulatory agency. They can turn our perfectly functional iPhone into a doorstop anytime they want and get us to buy a new one.

Maintaining backward compatibility is about deciding on a common sense design vocabulary and sticking to it. While standards can stifle creativity, they can also prevent waste. What if I don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars every two years on a new phone made by underpaid workers?

And what about the way we use phones? Very early on in the history of the phone system certain audio signals were agreed upon: among others these include the dial tone, the ringback tone, the busy signal and the hang up alert. Of these, the one that one rarely hears anymore is the busy signal. Maybe I don’t want to wade through long voice mails or texts. Maybe you just have to wait until I’m off the phone. And the hang up alert (that annoying sound that lets you know an old phone is off the hook) needs to be re-purposed and brought back to prevent so-called “butt dialing” or “pocket dialing.”

But let me end on a hopeful note. During the Christmas holiday, while we were hosting friends and family, AT&T decided to stop servicing my traditional landline/ISDN combo and forced me to switch to their fake fiber optic service called U-Verse (it’s still, for the most part, copper wire based). After I switched, my dial phone stopped working and our internet service degraded so much we were unable to put out this blog without using our cellphones. I called back the friendly AT&T technician who installed U-Verse and he admitted to me that it didn’t work in our neighborhood (thanks for not letting me know that ahead of time!).

In the end I was forced to switch to Time Warner for slightly better and equally expensive service. Our overseas readers should know this is common in the U.S., that we pay a lot of money for poor telecommunications services.

But the electromechanical geek in me had a delightful surprise. Either Time Warner or the folks who designed the modem Time Warner provides had a respect for backward compatibility. Unlike AT&T’s U-Verse service, my Western Electric 500 dial phone still can make an outbound call on Time Warner. The Western Electric 500’s ringer, the bane of Kelly’s existence, still rings. I suspect some old Bell system engineer must be responsible for this obscure technical detail. To that engineer, I lift my cocktail in your honor. May we always hear that electromechanical ring!

A Lecture on the Connection Between Cats and Grain

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If not for cats would we have bread? On Saturday June 4th at 2 p.m. at the Los Angeles Bread Festival at Grand Central Market I’m going to deliver a talk on the connection between cats and grain. The connection is a basic one: store grain and you get vermin. Then you need cats.

But, in the course of preparing for this lecture, I discovered that the commonly held narrative of cat domestication is an unsubstantiated fiction. That narrative goes something like this: in a golden, ancient time Egyptians revered cats, Medieval folks persecuted them and enlightened 18th century philosophers rediscovered them. This is the feline version of the myth of progress whose ultimate destination is a world in which we spend all our hours spinning around in self driving cars while watching, on our virtual reality glasses, an endlessly looped 3D version of Nyan Cat.

Islam tells a much more succinct and, I think, more accurate version of cat domestication. An Islamic legend holds that Noah’s ark was overrun with mice and rats. God instructed Noah to pet the nostril of a lion, whereupon the lion sneezed out two house cats. Noah’s vermin problem was solved. The story highlights the two ways in which humans actually interacted with house cats for thousands of years: as rodent control and as the occupants of ships.

In my talk I’ll discuss what we know about early cat domestication in the Fertile Crescent (not much, but cat domestication predates Egyptian civilization by several thousand years). Then I’ll show how our feline grain guardians became ship’s cats and spread all around the world. Lastly, I’ll take a detour into the lives of famous distillery cats.

Hope to see you at the Bread Fest!

Book Review: Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer

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I’m actually writing this review before I’ve even finished Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants, because I’m savoring it so slowly it’s taking me forever to finish, and at the same time, I’m so excited about the book I couldn’t wait any longer to tell you all about it.

In her faculty bio, Robin Wall Kimmerer is described as a mother, plant ecologist, writer and SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse, New York. She is also an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation.

It’s typical of her that all these descriptors are laid out in the first sentence of her biography, because she does not compartmentalize her different selves (scientist, mom, Potawtomi woman), but rather weaves them together, like sweetgrass basket, to make an integrated whole. In the same way her prose, which takes the form of story telling, will use one unlikely metaphor, like her long fight with pond muck, or tapping maple trees, to bring out moments of unexpected beauty, connection and inspiration.

My first exposure to Dr. Kimmerer came via one of my favorite podcasts, On Being. Here’s a link to that episode: The Intelligence of All Kinds of Life. 

I remember first listening to this podcast while walking around our neighborhood one evening at twilight. As she spoke about the intelligence of all living things and the importance of our relationship with plants, how we are meant to love and live in a respectful, reciprocal relationship with the natural world, tears came to my eyes because the things she was saying were the things I have always believed–always known— but which are not supported by my culture.

As a result, I often feel a little crazy, or unmoored, because trying to live my ideals in this world is like swimming upstream. In fact, it is all but impossible. But hearing an author, a professor, a scientist on a big radio program speaking my truth in a calm, clear voice, as if it were fact, as if it were the most sensible thing in the world, eased my heart. I hope you have a chance to hear this podcast, or read her books, and if you’re like me, I hope it eases your heart, too.

At one point, and I can’t remember if this was in her interview or in the book, maybe both, she tells of asking her grad students a question. She asks them, “Many of us love the natural world. What would it mean if you knew the world loved you back?”

Her students, all being budding scientists, could not accept that proposition (anthropomorphism, sentimentality, etc.). So she tweaked it a little for their comfort and said, “Okay, make it a hypothetical. Hypothetically speaking, what would change if you knew the world loved you back?”

Then they lit up with ideas and possibilities. “Everything would change!” they cried.

I agree with Dr. Kimmerer. The world does love us back. It cannot speak, but it shows its love through selfless acts of giving, like a mother. Plants shower us with abundance. They give us food, medicine, textiles building materials, and less material gifts like beauty and solace. They even give us oxygen: their love for us fills our lungs with every breath. Plants are the basis of the food chain, so at the root of things, our lives are wholly sustained by and dependent on the beneficence of the plant world, and yet we so rarely take a moment say thank you.

Picture Sundays: Memory Castle

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An example of a memory palace or “method of loci.” From the description of this woodcut, which is in the collection of the Bodleian Library at the University of Oxford:

The Tower of Wisdom is constructed of a basement supported by 4 buttresses, a first floor with 5 windows and a double door reached by a staircase of 7 steps, above which rises the keep of a castle constructed with 12 courses of 10 stones inscribed with the names of religious virtues and topped by battlements. The reader is guided upwards in a process of edification marked by 22 letters of the alphabet from A to Y. [Germany, c.1475]

Johannes Metensis,Turris sapientiae. Woodcut with Latin inscriptions. [Germany, c.1475]

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