Industry “Standards”

Anyone familiar with the IT industry is surely aware of the hundreds of “industry standards” that have come and gone over the years: USB, FireWire, PictBridge, 802.11g, Bluetooth, Ethernet, PCI, ISA, RS-232… the list goes on and on. Most of these standards are (were) well thought-out systems created by engineers working with designers and marketing departments. But that’s not always the case. Industry standards are sometimes determined by available components or corporate warfare… or even one man’s random decision! And you can find all three of those reasons in the chequered history of the phonograph record.

As you probably know, the first commercially viable recording and playback system was invented by Thomas Edison in 1877. The system used a needle to cut grooves into a spinning wax cylinder. The only problem with the system was the the cylinder was turned by a hand crank. This meant that you could record something at 30 cranks per second (cps), while your neighbor might record something at 50cps, while the guy down the street might use 60cps. It wasn’t long before Edison’s engineers were asking him to create a “cranks per second” standard so that any recording would play back correctly on any machine. Edison found a machine and played with it for a while before setting on 80cps… “because it sounded right”. No scientific testing, no focus groups, no careful study of the results… just Edison playing around with the machine for 15 minutes.

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How A Flea Spawned The Middle Class

There are around 2.8 billion people in Europe, North and South America, Japan and India. A huge chunk of these people are middle class. Neither rich nor poor, the middle classes are able to obtain comfortable shelter, an adequate supply of food, clothing and basic utilities like electricity and sewer service, as well as education for their children and entertainment for themselves. But I wonder how many people in the middle classes know that they owe their existence… to a flea!

Well, not to a flea, exactly. But rather Yersinia pestis, a bacteria that piggybacked on the flea… which in turn piggybacked on rats in the holds of ships. You might have guessed that I’m talking about the Black Death (a.k.a. the bubonic plague) which happened in Europe and the rest of the world between 1347 – 1351. Little is known about the epidemic outside of Europe except that it was also found in the Middle East, India and China and killed around 75 million people worldwide – around 34 million of which were Europeans. Of course, most of us learned about the Black Death in high school, yet we were often never taught about what the disease actually meant at the time and what happened after the disease had run its course…. which is odd, because one of the most important things to come out of the Black Death was the middle class itself!

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The Sad Saga of Diego Garcia

Imagine a scenario where Venezuela wanted a military base somewhere in the Caribbean and offered the United States a nice discount on oil if it would move the residents of Puerto Rico off their island, demolish all existing structures and lease it over to Venezuela in perpetuity… Sounds improbable, doesn’t it? Perhaps Puerto Rico isn’t a good example – with a modern infrastructure, a population of almost four million people and thousands of American businesses on the island, it would be a monumental task (logistically as well as politically) to pull something like that off. But what if the island’s population was much smaller? Could something like that happen?

Well, something like that already did. You might of heard of the island of Diego Garcia on the news. Located in the Indian Ocean, Diego Garcia is one of the largest American airbases in the world, and planes regularly take off from the island for missions in Iraq and Afghanistan. What you probably haven’t heard is how it came to pass that America got an airbase there in the first place. It’s a story of realpolitik, nuclear weapons, a few thousand Creoles and the mysterious powers of the British monarch.

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REVIEW: Illegal Tender

What: An awesome book by author David Tripp
Where: Bookstores everywhere
How Much: $16.38 from Amazon (as little as $2.70 used)

Would you believe me if I told you that one of history’s greatest mysteries was about… a handful of coins? Author David Tripp makes the case with his book Illegal Tender: Gold, Greed, and the Mystery of the Lost 1933 Double Eagle, a tale of intrigue at the highest levels of government, back-room deals between shady coin dealers, a madness of pursuit worthy of the search for the Holy Grail… and one corpulent and corrupt king.

Here’s the basics of the story in a nutshell:

Theodore Roosevelt had long been critical of the beauty – or lack thereof – of American coinage. In fact, one of the things he was bound and determined to do while in the White House was to remedy this, and to that end he sent a brutally short and to-the-point memo to Secretary of the Treasury Leslie Mortimer Shaw on December 27, 1904: “I think our coinage is artistically of atrocious hideousness.” This memo set off a chain of events that eventually resulted in the hiring of famed American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens to redesign American coins. Although Saint-Gaudens was in ill health – as it turns out, he would barely live long enough to see his designs to completion – he took to the task with gusto, creating new designs for just about every American coin. Sadly though, most of Saint-Gaudens’ designs were simply too complex for the Mint to implement. Striking a coin four times was perfectly acceptable for medallions, but it just wasn’t cost-effective to do the same for pennies. Of all of Saint-Gaudens’ designs, the only one to be implemented without major alterations would be $20 gold piece, which was nicknamed the “double eagle”. The coin would go down in history as perhaps the most beautiful coin the United States ever minted, and it would enjoy robust circulation for around 25 years.

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What’s a “fish camp”?

When people move from one state to another, they often have a ton of questions when they arrive at their new locale, stuff like “how does voter registration work here?”, “when do I need to change my car’s tags?”, “when’s trash pickup day?”, “how late are liquor stores open around here?” and “what’s the deal with local handgun laws?”. That sort of thing.

Of course, when I moved from Atlanta to Belmont, North Carolina in early 2003 I asked all those questions (and more). But I noticed one thing that seemed to be particular to Gaston Country, North Carolina… the “fish camp”. I gathered (correctly, as it turns out) that a fish camp is a locally-owned restaurant that serves up heapin’ helpins of fried seafood. But why is it a camp? And why are almost all fish camps located in Gaston County?

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Helpful Outlook Shortcuts

Microsoft Outlook is much more than just an email program. Outlook has robust contact, calendaring and tasking capabilities and even has a built-in function to create electronic Post-It notes. However, if all you need to do is create a quick note, it’s kind of a pain to have to open Outlook and click New > Note, especially if your office computer is a PII-300. Fortunately, there’s a way that you can create a new Contact, Appointment, Task, Note, Journal Entry or even email without having to open Outlook itself. The following trick works with Outlook 2000 and higher:

First of all, you need to find the path to OUTLOOK.EXE on your system. With Office 2003, this would typically be C:\Program Files\Microsoft Office\OFFICE11\OUTLOOK.EXE but you or your IT guy might have installed Office to a different location. To find out for sure, click on Start > Search and look for the file named OUTLOOK.EXE. Once you know the path, write it down.

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Installing Office & That Stupid Product Key

I have to install Office all the time at my job. One thing I absolutely hate about it is entering the stupid product key. If you have to install Office on a regular basis there’s an easy way to have the Office installer automatically insert the CD key for you. All you need to do is insert the Office CD-ROM in your computer and edit the SETUP.INI file that’s located in the root of the Office installation CD. When you first open the INI file, you’ll see a section that looks like this:

; If a value is present, the [Options] section gives the values of properties to apply to
; this installation. Specify them in the format:
; PropName=PropValue
; Remember to uncomment both the section name and the value names.
;USERNAME=Licensed User

Delete the semi-colon in front of the [Options] header and add the value PIDKEY= along with your CD-key like so:

; If a value is present, the [Options] section gives the values of properties to apply to
; this installation. Specify them in the format:
; PropName=PropValue
; Remember to uncomment both the section name and the value names.
;USERNAME=Licensed User

Save the edited INI file on your desktop (or Office network share, if you do network installations. If you go this route, you’re done). All you need to do next is burn a copy of the Office CD with the edited SETUP.INI file and the next time you install Office the CD key will automagically be filled in for you.

For more information, click here.