November 22, 2007

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Giving thanks
Behind the gadgets
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

At this time of year, we look back to the early days of American colonial life, when the Pilgrims first crossed the Atlantic Ocean looking for India, instead ending up marrying Pocahontas and founding the Mormon church in Williamsburg.

As we all know, the celebratory dinner that followed these momentous occasions was called Thanksgiving. Although that first holiday was celebrated by dumping tea into Boston Harbor, nowadays we get together with family and watch football.

In some houses, it is traditional to take the holiday’s name literally and give thanks for all the good things in their lives. This column celebrates computers and doodads every week of the year, but this week it is dedicated to some of the fundamental things that make our electronics possible.

Or, as George Washington said at that first feast: “Don’t hate, appreciate.”

• HTML: Back in ancient times, people didn’t use “Internet” and “World Wide Web” synonymously. From the 1970s to the mid-1990s, the Internet was pretty much a text-only medium. Sure, you could exchange dirty pictures over newsgroups, but it wasn’t nearly as convenient as the rich media out there today. Hypertext Markup Language, the foundation of every Web page you pull up in your browser, makes that possible. Like pictures with your news stories? Thank HTML. Links to related information? Once again, courtesy of HTML. Without it, we’d be exchanging giant Adobe Acrobat or Microsoft Word files.

• China: Sure, they poison our kids with lead paint and take away good ol’ ’Merican manufacturing jobs, but at the end of the day, they make all our cool stuff. And they make it dirt cheap. How much would an iPod cost if made by union labor in a plant with, like, human rights and stuff? Slightly more, you can be certain of that.

• The electromagnetic spectrum: In addition to letting us see things via the relatively narrow band of visible light frequencies, the EM spectrum has a section we like to call “radio,” where television and, well, radio broadcasts live. Slightly higher frequencies are useful for data transmission; most wireless networks operate at 2.4GHz, for example. Go even higher and you have the infrared band, without which remote controls wouldn’t exist.

• Electromagnetism in general: Among other things, magnetism plays a central role in how computers store data. The spinning platters of a hard drive are packed with minuscule, discrete sections that either have an electric charge or don’t. Those that do are read as ones, while those that don’t are read as zeros. Or maybe the other way around. In any case, every song, photo, program and document on your computer is made up of these ones and zeros, and changing the charge on a physical disk makes those files change. The arrangement of charges determines whether you’re listening to Cat Stevens, Tool or the London Philharmonic.

Come to think of it, electromagnetism is responsible for our being able to convert fuel sources into electricity in the first place, so it’s pretty darn essential to running gadgets. Aren’t we lucky that electrons are so excitable?