Never be afraid to get dirty, but be sufficiently sure-footed to avoid the abyss of contamination.

We’re All Connected

I’m in Downtown Berkeley BART looking at three pay phones and a spot where there should be a fourth. I doubt the fourth will ever return. Staring at the empty spot, I remember the last time I was inside a phone booth. I was in London, calling home and telling my mother I’d be going to Wimbledon the next day. It was a black phone booth located located across the street from my hostel and right next to Hyde Park in London, the city of red phone booths.

I take out my cell phone to check my e-mail. Eight years ago, I made the argument, “Who needs a cell phone with all these pay phones?” Telephone companies now appear to be operating under the philosophy, “Who needs a pay phone with all these cell phones?” Case in point, they’re now only found where cell phones are not easily usable, like subways and international airports. If I stand on the steps, though, I can get a signal, though. I’ve got mail!

Two months ago, I had a cell phone that couldn’t even check e-mail, and I recall the evolution of the phone and its industry during my short lifetime. Long before I was dialing numbers of my own, I was watching black-and-white episodes of The Donna Reed Show and Mr. Ed on Nick at Nite, which all featured episodes about party lines. I remember thinking how cool it would be to have one phone line for the neighborhood. Our home in Athens had a rotary phone, a device that might invite some blank stares if I were to mention it today. Then there were the stories I’d hear in New Jersey about Ma Bell and that 1984 decision to part her from her children. The Baby Bells would grow up to be a rebellious, incestuous, and even Oedipal bunch.

As the train arrives, I notice a program a friend wrote on my phone and remember my own experiences playing with these devices. There was the day my dad handed me a broken phone and a screwdriver, which I promptly disassembled and put back together with reordered numbers as if they were stickers on a Rubik’s cube. During a winter break in college, I produced touch tone sounds in MATLAB on a whim. It turned out the tones were simply the superposition of two sine waves with differing frequencies. I would later learn about matched filters, the tool automated systems use to figure out whether a caller is pushing “for English” or “para Español.” And of course, there was grad school, my six-year relationship with wireless communication. I even tried writing a short program of my own for the cell phone while taking a business class last year. While I failed, a more advanced version of it is now standard on most smart phones.

I’ve made it to San Francisco and the MUNI. There’s only one pay phone at this stop, but that’s enough for a song about one of the Baby Bells to pop into my head: “We’re all connected… New York Telephone.” While New Jersey was the home of Ma Bell, its television stations were either from New York or Philly, so we didn’t get our own song, unless you count the one by the Beastie Boys: “Like Ma Bell, I got the ill communication!” While the Beastie Boys were repeating that chorus on the playlists of many a college student, New York Telephone became NYNEX: The Heart of Communication, uttered by James Earl Jones in his Darth Vader voice. NYNEX became Bell Atlantic: The Heart of Communication, spoken by James Earl Jones in his Mufasa voice. Bell Atlantic became Verizon. James Earl Jones continued to speak in his distinctive voice, but he no longer spoke of communication or its heart. Can you hear him now? Gooood! And there were interesting relationships taking place among the Baby Bells in the West. PacBell was devoured by Southwestern Bell Corporation (SBC), who then married Ma Bell and took her title. It was like the Greek tragedy minus the eye-gouging at the end.

I may have missed the last train, so once again, I take out the device that now keeps me connected. I am connected: to my parents, who still live in the land of Ma Bell; my sister’s family in Boston with a two-year-old niece that sometimes accidentally dials my phone number to say, “I love you!” or “Happy Birthday!” without really understanding what they mean; my cousins across the United States; and my grandmother in India. I am also connected to friends, past and present: the biology major turned high school social studies teacher who went with me to explore a town called Berkeley for the first time; the computer graphics expert turned computer medical expert who brought a tray from Jansen’s that we used to sled down Libe Slope; the prodigy turned programmer I built a Capture the Flag robot and designed the circuitry for a simple computer with; the biochemist turned applied mathematician I had dinner with one fateful evening in La Val’s, where we discussed The Matrix, housing, and professors we were considering as advisors; the English major turned lawyer who asked me if I’d heard of Claude Shannon on one of the first occasions we hung out; and many others.

The last train had broken down, but a replacement finally arrives, and I make my way above ground again, back to a world sprinkled with cell towers, soon to be supplemented with femtocells to support OFDM-based 4G networks. My mind is filled with buzzwords and catch phrases. I complete a brain purge on this blog before going to bed.

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2 responses

  1. Lav

    Have you ever seen the film Telezonia (http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=5844452338623457489)?

    If you write a review, I would be most interested.

    February 27, 2010 at 7:21 pm

  2. K

    That was like watching some strange mix of the filmstrips from elementary school and Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Wait for at least ten rings?

    February 27, 2010 at 9:55 pm

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