Skip to content

Book Review: Exploding The Phone

IMG_1499.JPG

I remember breaking the law at my Great Aunt May’s house. We were standing in her basement, huddled around an old phone. This wasn’t the regular phone. This was the scandalous “extension.” In 1970 the phone company owned all of the equipment. You rented your equipment from AT&T. And they had “ways” of finding out if you had installed an extension. I didn’t know what the penalty was. Aunt May didn’t know what the penalty was. But, she knew if you only listened, didn’t talk, you were safe.

Exploding The Phone, by Phil Lapsley is a fascinating journey of exploration into the land of the world’s largest machine. Phil Lapsley takes the reader on a fascinating trip populated with blind teenagers, hippies, blind whistlers, future titans of industry, gamblers, and at the heart of it was the AT&T phone system and something called a blue box.

Exploding The Phone takes us through the cat and mouse game as phone phreaks matched wits with the engineers at the phone company, and law enforcement including the FBI. And to what end? Oh sure, there were a few people like Kenneth Hanna, a bookie who used a blue box to make free phone calls to his clients, but for the most part the people involved in hacking the phone system did it just because they could.

Exploding The Phone details the history not only of how AT&T built the worlds largest machine, but how a bunch of teenagers turned it into their own personal playground. At least, that is until the FBI showed up and spoiled everyone’s fun.

I knew a little of the history of Ma Bell before I picked up Exploding The Phone, but there were plenty of happy surprises for me. For example, “The Steves,” Jobs and Wozniak of Apple Computer fame started out as phone phreaks. Jobs was more interested in selling blue boxes than making them. Wozniak, as usual was the technical brains behind the operation. In an interesting connection that Lapsley didn’t pick upon, Woz’s work on blue boxes had something in common with his work on the Macintosh. Inside each phone hacking blue box he built he included a strip of paper that said,

He’s got the whole world in his hands.

Even Wozniak, who write the introduction for Exploding The Phone couldn’t really explain why he put the phrase there, except that if he was later asked to fix a blue box and it had the paper inside, he’d know it was one of his. . .and he’d fix it for free.

Years later when the Apple Macintosh came out, the Macintosh team included a message inside the box as well.

IMG_1497.JPG
(Photo Credit: Cultofmac.com)

The development team signed their names and then Apple baked that into the manufacturing process and the inside of the case. So, just as he did years earlier, Wozniak added a note inside the Mac that said, “I made this.”

This book isn’t for everyone. But, even if your only exposure to phone phreaking was watching Matthew Brodrick make free phone calls in the 1983 movie WarGames, Lapsley has written his story in an engaging way that will take you along for the ride.

What I Liked
Lapsley tells a very interesting story. He includes enough of the details that an old wire monkey like me will find pieces that make me go squee. (It’s a technical term.) But, the technical details take a backseat to the dialogue and the fascinating cast of characters. He doesn’t bury the reader in the technically. Instead, it’s the people who drive the story.

What I didn’t
That cast of characters is part of my one issue with the book. The story lacks cohesion in many spots. When the major players do not have any actual connection to each other, Lapsley has to rely on the technology to transition from chapter to chapter. Especially the first few chapters, while well written in and of themselves, lacked a compelling arc to tie them together.

What it means to you
Exploding The Phone is a hefty tome. It weighs in at 431 pages including the appendix and index. That’s a lot of words to devote to a subject if you have only marginal interest. However, if you grew up taking phones apart and if your first job in college was installing a new telephone system on BYU campus (Pull It Now) Exploding The Phone is a wonderful diversion. I intend to gift my hardbound edition to the head of our telecom team at work. He’s just the kind of old phone phreak who would enjoy it, I think.

Rating
3 stars out of 5

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. His self titled blog posts every M-F at 7:00 AM Mountain Time. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and one grandchild.

Follow him on
Twitter (@rodneymbliss)
Facebook (www.facebook.com/rbliss)
LinkedIn (www.LinkedIn.com/in/rbliss)
or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

Making Things Harder Than They Should Be

Things should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.
– Albert Einstein

IMG_1488.JPG

Einstein was a genius but he never tried to transfer videos between smart phones.

Hey Rodney, you know that video you took getting water dumped on me from the 4th floor?

Yeah, I posted it to youtube.

Can you give me a copy?

It’s on my phone. It’s too big to send through email.

Here, I think if we just touch our phones, they should set up a bluetooth connection and we can transfer it.

IMG_1484.JPG

After smacking our phones together to no effect.

Maybe I can try texting it.

“File is too big to send as a text”

Try sending it to Google Drive.

Yeah, I could. Or I could install dropbox on my phone.

You’ve got an Android phone. It should already be set up with Google drive.

I’ll work on it and get back to you.

Between us, my boss and I have over 50 years of computer experience. (I’m old, him slightly less so.) You would think that between us we could figure out how to get a file from my phone to his computer.

He could have pulled the video off of youtube, but it would require a installing a program. We could use dropbox, but we’d have to install software. I could use Google Drive, except that I have never used it and I’m not sure if I have to set up credentials.

What we really needed was a simple way to move really big files back and forth between two devices. The answer turned out to be literally right in front of my face. And the solution would have made Einstein proud, although he would not have recognized the tool.

Guess what happens when you plug your phone into a computer to recharge?

IMG_1487.JPG

I decided I was not nearly smart enough for my tools. Or maybe I was too smart for my own good. I plugged in my phone and the computer was very happy to move a 56MB video file to my desktop in less than 10 seconds.

IMG_1485.JPG

Add one very old school thumbdrive and wait for another 10 second transfer.

IMG_1486.JPG

Sometimes the simplest solutions are the best.

My boss accepted the ALS ice bucket challenge. He had two buckets of ice water dumped on him from the top of our 4 story building. The sound in this video isn’t great, but the picture is pretty clear. Here’s the video.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and one grandchild.

Follow him on
Twitter (@rodneymbliss)
Facebook (www.facebook.com/rbliss)
LinkedIn (www.LinkedIn.com/in/rbliss)
or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

What, Me Worry?

I’m not sure why it took me so long to notice. Maybe it was the long hours. Maybe it was the darkness. Today I “slept in” until 5:00AM. All week I’ve been getting up at 3:15AM to be at work at 4:30AM. I was back to The Brutal Schedule of Working Half Days. Today, I didn’t need to be in until 7:00AM.

Whatever the reason, it wasn’t until I was on the freeway that I looked down at the dash and my heart fell. All of a sudden I remembered I was planning to buy gas first thing before heading to work.

IMG_1481.JPG

Not only did I forget, I’d let my car get lower than I ever had in the past. Panic set it. I’d gone from “being comfortably early” to work to “how late will running out of gas make me?”

My mind went into overdrive:

- Where is the next gas station?
– How many miles do I have left?
– Will my temperamental transmission complain if the engine dies at 70 – MPH?
– Will I have time to move to the shoulder when the engine dies?
– Which meetings will I miss if I’m a couple of hours later?
– Will I have to buy a gas can?
– Do cops stop and help stranded motorists?
– Should I stay with the car when it dies, or should I try walking to the gas station?

And a million more thoughts. My stress level went through the sun roof. And then, still miles from the nearest gas station, all of a sudden I quit worrying. I didn’t assume everything would be all right, but I did quit worrying. I turned the radio back up and enjoyed the Country station.

A project manager is a professional worrier. Seriously, I get paid to think about everything that could possibly go wrong with my project. We do an exercise called “Risk Analysis.” We look at the risk, for example, the possibility that I won’t be able to get fiber data circuits in time for my GO LIVE date. That’s an actual risk on my current project.

Once you’ve identified a risk, you have to put it on the Risk Registry and you decide what you can do to minimize the risk, or mitigate it. In my case, we realize it’s unlikely we will get the 50MB fiber circuits we need in time for GO LIVE. We know we won’t get them in time for my TRAINING date.

So, Plan B is to immediately order 12MB “copper” circuits in the interim. They take less time to get installed. Now, we go through the Risk Analysis process all over again. There is a chance the 12 MB circuits won’t be ready in time for my TRAINING date. Plan C might be some sort of cable modem or a DSL line. They have an even shorter install lead time. But, they are smaller than the 12MB circuits. We might not be able to run our training classes on a cable modem.

See? I worry about the backup to my backup plans. And Circuits are just one of about a dozen areas I have to track. Every area; Desktops, Network, Facilities, Security, Systems, Telecom, have their own risks and mitigations.

I’m really good at worrying. That’s why you might be surprised that I suddenly became so calm at the prospect of running out of gas on the freeway and being late to work.

The reason is that in addition to being really good at worrying, project managers are also really good at not worrying. In the circuit example above, I worried my way through three different possible plans. The guy in charge of ordering our circuits knew what the the various plans were, and more importantly, he knew what our preferred plan was. At that point, there is nothing else I can do. I can’t make the order process go any faster than it was already going. At this point, my plans are either going to work or they are not. And no amount of action, and especially no amount of worrying on my part will impact any of the outcomes.

Once you’ve done all you can, there is no point to further worry. This is different than fatalism. I will watch the developments carefully and be ready to change my plans if necessary. This is different than the post I wrote where I explained It’s Not That I Think We’ll Crash. I Just Don’t Care. In that case, I didn’t worry because there was nothing I could do if my plane was going to crash. In my current case, I don’t need to worry once I’ve done everything I can.

And that’s exactly why I quit worrying about running out of gas. No amount of worry was going to cause my car to go farther on fumes. No amount of knotted stomach pains would shorten the distance to the nearest gas station. In my head I plotted my route to that gas station and got into the right hand lane in case I had to coast to a stop.

At that point, I realized there was nothing more I could do. No sense worrying over something that might not even happen. Again, this applies to my work as a project manager. My circuits would either come in on time or they wouldn’t. If they didn’t, I had my backup plans. If I ran out of gas, my backup plan was to walk to the gas station.

It would be awful to end this column without finishing the story.

IMG_1477.JPG

I made it to the gas station. Plus, I put more gas into my car than I ever have. In fact, more than I even thought it would hold.

IMG_1478.JPG

With my project, I got word yesterday that the 12MB circuits would be installed in plenty of time to meet my training date, and my 50MB fiber circuits would be available 2 months earlier than expected.

Much of what we worry about never actually happens. Makes me glad I didn’t spent any additional time worrying about it.

IMG_1482.JPG

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and one grandchild.

Follow him on
Twitter (@rodneymbliss)
Facebook (www.facebook.com/rbliss)
LinkedIn (www.LinkedIn.com/in/rbliss)
or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

The Strange Role Of Traffic Cops

IMG_1475.JPG
(Photo Credit: On Plan)

Have you ever seen someone physically accosted with nothing more than a voice? Have you seen them accosted from 35 feet away simply by words spoken?

It’s a pretty impressive sight.

The art of project management is getting people who owe you nothing to do things for you. In my current role, I have no one who reports to me directly. I have no technical processes or programs that I’m responsible for. I’m not sure I even have the skills to maintain technical programs if they were given to me. (The Day I Realized I Had No Skills.) And yet, if anything goes wrong at my current project. . .from a server crashing to the lights going out, I’m responsible.

In a lot of ways, I’m like a traffic cop. While a missionary in Chicago I occasionally encountered a traffic cop. And their role and their skills were not what I expected. However, their role reminds me a lot of a project manager.

The first misconception about traffic cops is that they are there to direct traffic, as in vehicular traffic. They are not. They are there to direct people traffic. During rush hour in a major city the streets get jammed with people. People who are in a hurry. People who are trying to catch a train, a bus, or grab a cab. People who just want to get home after a long day at work, or get to their dinner reservation before their table gets given away. Whatever is driving people, they are all in a hurry.

Have you ever jay walked? Me too. I’ve been known to cross against the light. But, if there is traffic, that’s a dangerous endeavor in my little town. However, in a big city, during rush hour, there are hundreds and thousands of people around me who are also willing to jay walk. When the light turns yellow, we hurry across, chasing those in front of us. And there are those behind us chasing us. When the light turns red, people will continue to stream across the street, because the people in front stopped the traffic. And behind the jay walkers, are hundreds more, and behind them additional thousands.

What to do?

A traffic cop. The traffic cop in a city like Chicago, or New York is not there to direct the cars. She is there to make people get back on the sidewalk. During my years in Chicago, I saw traffic cops physically push someone back on the sidewalk with her voice. . .and a whistle. The whistle is important.

Without the traffic cop, no cars would ever move. There are simply too many people.

Not every aspect of a traffic cop’s role translates to a project manager, but more than a few do. The PM’s role is not to actually maintain any of the systems, or stage any of the computers, or configure any firewall rules. But, the PM has to know about all of that. The PM plays traffic cop when he pushes Telecom to get additional phone circuits. When he makes a call to keep the network team from blowing the schedule because we missed counting switches.

The PM, like the traffic cop keeps everyone else moving smoothly, and coordinates the work of multiple teams so they deliver on time. It’s a role I relish, but recognize that like the traffic cop, I don’t have the ability to physically do much of anything. I don’t yell at people to get them to do what I need. But, my success is directly linked to my ability often to get people to move simply by persuading them.

Unfortunately, I don’t get a whistle. The traffic cop has me beat on that score.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and one grandchild.

Follow him on
Twitter (@rodneymbliss)
Facebook (www.facebook.com/rbliss)
LinkedIn (www.LinkedIn.com/in/rbliss)
or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

Getting Schooled By A Group Of Teenagers

Hey guys, put them away.

What?

You’re phones. Give me your attention for a few minutes.

But, that’s what we were doing.

Come on. I was 17 once too. Let me see what’s on your phones.

Every year I tell my family I want a Dilbert desk calendar. Every year my kids fail to get me one for Christmas. Every year, I go and buy a Dilbert desk calendar for myself in January.

I like Dilbert because he talks about my world. I’ve been in the IT world for a long time. I consider myself one of the “in” crowd. I’ve built my own computer. I can analyze network traces just using a copy of notepad.exe. I can tell the baud rate of a modem just by listening to its handshake protocol.

And that is when I realized I wasn’t as hip as I thought. Most people entering the workforce today don’t care about building a computer. In fact, they don’t much care about the computer at all. If they need to look at network traces, products like Wireshark do all the heavy lifting. And no one uses modems. No one cares.

A Dilbert cartoon last week showed the young intern Asok asking the title character about the “Grandpa box.” Tablets and smartphones are much more the tools of the younger generation.

But, I have a smartphone. Nearly every blog post I’ve ever written, close to 400 of them, have been written on my iPad. Scott Adams wasn’t talking about me as one of those “granpa box” users. . .was he? Sure, I am a grandpa, but I’m a technology guy. I understand this stuff. I’m still relevant!

The teenage boys in my Sunday School class all turned their phones around. Each phone had a scripture app loaded and they were all following along with the lesson I was teaching.

At least they didn’t complain I was using a grandpa box.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and one grandchild.

Follow him on
Twitter (@rodneymbliss)
Facebook (www.facebook.com/rbliss)
LinkedIn (www.LinkedIn.com/in/rbliss)
or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

Just Pour The Drinks

IMG_1473.JPG

Hey Lloyd, there’s a problem with the order for table 3.

What do you need?

See, I thought they had ordered rum and coke, but it turns out the guy was just talking to his friend about other drinks they had here and he wasn’t actually. . .

What do you NEED!

Oh. . .ah. . .return on a rum and coke. Corona with lime.

In addition to being a professional gambler (Looking For The Answer In The Back Of The Book) my dad was also a bar tender at one point in his life. He’s been gone for 5 years, but I had a chance to talk to my mother about him this weekend. (I Never Again Had Friends Like When I Was Twelve…Does Anyone?)

At work, I get involved every time something breaks. Ironically I cannot fix it. But, I provide two important functions. First, I bring the right people together. Secondly, because I am familiar with all aspects of the customer installation, I often get involved in drive for a return to service.

I don’t remember anyone ever teaching me how to drive for resolution or results. But, I must have picked it up simply by growing up in my house. My brothers and I are really good at managing in a crisis.

I’m sure there’s a some official name for it. Personally I call it “Tank driving.” If you are in a tank, you don’t really have to worry about whats going on around you. You can point your tank at the objective and drive straight for your goal.

A good tank driver can boil a situation down to its essential elements. Like a couple of weeks ago when I had a problem with Baking Pans and Wiring Closets, I didn’t really care about the look. I just needed it to be functional.

However, there’s a problem with tank driving. You miss the niceties. You tend to be viewed as arrogant, or insensitive. And your arrogance factor is directly related to how fast your drive your tank. If you have the luxury of time, you can build consensus. This method hands down beats every other method of decision making. But, it takes a long time. Sometimes a REALLY long time.

I was part of a team that was rolling out Microsoft Lync. However, our telecom team really wanted to go with Cisco’s instant message product. As the engineering manager, I knew we were going to go with Lync. The project manager knew we were going to go with Lync. But, he refused to announce that as our decision. Instead, week after week we met with the telecom team, talking about their concerns and working toward a consensus opinion. It was maddening. However, after several months the telecom team was on board and the PM moved forward confident that he had turned telecom from a potential stumbling block to an ally.

It’s a skill I still struggle to master.

What does all of this have to do with my dad the bar tender? My mother related the above story to me. Typically during a rush a bar tender might be filling 300 per hour. That’s one order every 12 seconds. He doesn’t have time for a lengthy explanation about why the order was screwed up. Like Officer Joe Friday on Dragnet, he just wants “the facts.” The story can wait for a time when it’s not busy. In the middle of the rush he just needs enough information to pour the drinks.

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and one grandchild.

Follow him on
Twitter (@rodneymbliss)
Facebook (www.facebook.com/rbliss)
LinkedIn (www.LinkedIn.com/in/rbliss)
or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

What My Kids Taught Me About Participation Trophies

I didn’t even realize they had done it. I’m not sure they realized they had done it.

This is a picture of our “trophy shelves.”

IMG_1454.JPG

It took me a while to realize the significance of the placement of the trophies.

Participation trophies are a controversial topic. Some people think that the “trophication” (Thanks to my friend Caleb for the word) of America is a big part of what’s wrong with our society.

When everyone’s special then no one is. – Dash

When everyone is super, no one will be – Buddy/Syndrome

If everyone gets a trophy then getting a trophy isn’t special, it’s boring. It’s expected. My kids have picked up a few participation trophies along the way. I still have a couple from when I played peewee football.

And yet, There’s something to be said for rewarding effort. Microsoft used to hand out trophies pretty freely. Here are a couple of my Microsoft Ship It! awards.

IMG_1457.JPG

IMG_1456.JPG

I worked my butt off for the EST awards, but the product Ship It awards? I got those because I sat in the Exchange building. True, I was writing courseware on Exchange, but I had a buddy down the hall who was writing Windows NT courseware. He got an Exchange Ship It award. He kept the trophy but didn’t stick on the Exchange sticker.

Other awards, no matter how cheesy, if they are personalized tend to mean more. My current boss awarded me this trophy.

IMG_1458.JPG

He gave it to me because we had a bet on whether I (or anyone, but I was the only one volunteering) could climb up through a gap in our turnstiles. A gap that is covered with spare ceiling tiles in this picture.

IMG_1459.JPG

I’m not as small as I once was, (Up Through The Rabbit Hole) but, I was willing to venture $5 that I could make it. I did, he paid up and threw in a trophy to commemorate the event.

I’ll keep the trophy on my desk. But, the fact that it was for something that I did, something that he didn’t think I could do and then did anyway, means that it’s more important than a simple department wide trophy.

I’m not opposed to the Ship It award type rewards. I was part of a team. And, I really like team awards. In fact, I like them so well that I started awarding Ship It awards anonymously when my department at Microsoft decided to discontinue them. (They Switched To A Cash And Totally Blew It.)

But, I’m still concerned with the message that participation trophies send my kids. And then I realized what the trophy shelves were showing me. If you look at the top shelf of the above picture, the first trophy is 1st Place in Beginning Chess. Next to it is the 2nd Place in Beginning Chess trophy. (My sons were in a tournament and could beat everyone except each other.) The round trophy on the end is awarded when a kid reads 50 books in a summer. The two medals on ribbons say, 2nd Place Lindon Mini-Marathon 2012 and 3rd Place Grovecrest Mini-Marathon 2013. And the son who won them assures me that next year he’s going to take 1st.

The trophies on the third shelf? They are participation trophies.

My kids literally put the trophies they earned on the top shelf. While they may not even be able to articulate it, they see value in the top shelf trophies and don’t consider the participation trophies all that important.

I think they “get it.”

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife, thirteen children and one grandchild.

Follow him on
Twitter (@rodneymbliss)
Facebook (www.facebook.com/rbliss)
LinkedIn (www.LinkedIn.com/in/rbliss)
or email him at rbliss at msn dot com

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 902 other followers

%d bloggers like this: