Category Archives: Technology

Telephone country codes: A shorthand history of the world

Calling SwedenDiary date: 31st July, 1985

A watershed moment 28 years ago this week: I’ve arrived in Sweden for a three-month stay working as a cleaner on the dockyards in Gothenburg. After a week, I managed to get enough Kronor in a public phone box to call my family and let them know I’d arrived safely. I spoke to them for about 20 seconds before my change ran out.

As a child of International Direct Dialling – the ability to make country-to-country phone calls without the help of a human operator – it was around this point that I started to make a mental note of the ‘country codes’ of places I’d visited. From Sweden, I knew I needed to dial 44 to get back to the UK. Doing the reverse – calling Sweden from the UK – I needed a 46 instead. At the time, I remember thinking that the allocation of these numbers was probably based on the alphabet. 44 was close to 46, and the ‘U’ of United Kingdom was close to the ‘S’ of Sweden. Who needed Wikipedia back then?

In fact, the development of the country code system is not nearly that simple, telling as it does by proxy the story of global geo-political change since the early 1960’s.

An initial list of largely European country codes was mooted in 1960 by the organisation which was to become the ITU (International Telecommunication Union) – the UN agency which helps coordinate global telecoms. The list was published as the Red Book and proposed around 50 two-digit codes (presumably used at the time by operators rather than subscribers), including the now-defunct Yugoslavia (63), Arabia (26) and Czechoslovakia (57).

The Red Book became Blue in 1964 and brought with it a proposal for a new system. The world was divided into nine zones, and countries were given one, two or three-digit country codes, with the initial digit representing their zone. World Zone 1 was North America, Zone 2 was Africa, Europe bagged both 3 and 4 because of the sheer number of larger countries, and so on.

In 1968 the Book was White and built on the new model, with a wide range of changes and additions, including East Germany (37), the Trucial States (971) and Zanzibar (252). Turkey, which in 1964 had the European code 36, moved to Zone 9 (Western Asia and the Middle East) and adopted its current code – 90.

1972 was Green and did a lot of tidying up.  Several Central American countries like El Salvador and Honduras left the North American Zone 1, and became part of Zone 5 – South America. The Trucial States merged to become the United Arab Emirates and acquired code 971, and Rhodesia (263) became Zimbabwe. Ceylon (92) kept the same country code but became Sri Lanka. Meanwhile, Morocco strangely found itself with with three codes all to itself (210, 211 and 212).

The books in the next few years started with Orange and Yellow, but their four-year cycles were eventually abandoned so that the ITU could keep pace with the demands of the new world of personal computing.

The changes since then read like a shorthand history of the world:

  • In 1984, the Republic of Upper Volta (226) became Burkina Faso, and the Falkland Islands, previously assigned to Guatemala, acquired their own code – 500.
  • The same year, a new code – 850 – was created for North Korea, with South Korea retaining code 82.
  • After German reunification in 1990, East Germany’s code 37 was deleted in favour of West Germany’s 49.
  • Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia (251) in 1993 and acquired a new code – 291.
  • Lithuania (370), Latvia (371), Estonia (372) and several other states split from Zone 7 (originally named ‘USSR’ in 1964) in 1993. The only former Soviet republic that retained its ‘7’ designation was (and remains) Kazakhstan.
  • Yugoslavia (38) was deleted in 1993 and became Serbia and Montenegro (381), Croatia (385), Slovenia (386), Bosnia (387) and Macedonia (389).
  • Vatican City gained its own code (379) in 1995 – instead of just being reachable through Italy.
  • In 1997, Czechoslovakia (57) became the Czech Republic (420) and Slovakia (421).
  • Following its independence from Indonesia, East Timor was assigned code 670 in 1999.
  • Palestine was given code 970 in 1999, replacing its previous access via Israel on code 972.

In fact, of the original 1960 Red Book list, only six countries* today retain the codes they were initially given.

Coincidentally – and rather fittingly for my followthehumming story – two of these are the ever-lovely Sweden (46) and my own United Kingdom (44).

*Just out of interest – since you’ve got this far – the other four are Greece, France, Italy and ‘Germany.’

Why waiting matters

Waiting for a traffic lightDiary date: 11th June, 1985

If you believe my diary, there seems to have been an awful lot of waiting around involved in living in 1985 – along with a fair amount of lingering, dallying and even the occasional bout of tarrying.

Mostly, I seem to have been waiting for friends who were late for something, but I also spent lots of time waiting for buses and trains, or for a particular book to become available at the library, or even for a letter to arrive. Waiting was often a pain in the backside, but it did have its occasional serendipitous upside – like the unexpected chance to chat to the cute girl from down the road who you never managed to accidentally bump into no matter how hard you tried.

Many of the things my 80s self used to wait for now sound distinctly old-fashioned. That boring half an hour spent on a street corner waiting for my friends to show up has disappeared altogether and been replaced by a preventative text, Facebook or WhatsApp message. News from my extended family now arrives instantly by email instead of days later by exhausted-looking letter. If my train is late, my phone buzzes to let me know before I’ve even left home. My holiday snaps are seen by friends and family while I’m still away – instead of weeks later after they’ve been printed out on special paper at the local chemist. And my parents used to have to wait till I came home from university before finding out much about what had happened during each term. These days, they’d probably be able to fashion a blow-by-blow account from blogs, texts and status updates – even if I decided not to let them be my friends on Facebook.

Given all this general speeding up, whizzing around and instant gratification, it’s nice to know that waiting for some things still takes just as long as it used to. It still seems to take around nine months between conceiving and having a baby, for example – which is almost certainly a good thing for all concerned. Mercifully, there are also still 12 months between Christmases and birthdays. And the average waiting time for a date with the cute girl from down the road isn’t necessarily any shorter these days just because you follow her on Twitter.

In reality, we’re still waiting for a lot of the important stuff in life just like we always have done. What’s really changed is how quickly and easily we can communicate about it with other people.

Given that anticipation is allegedly half the feast, the fact that waiting hasn’t gone completely out of fashion is no bad thing. These days, perhaps all we’re doing is sharing the feast just that little bit more.

Arcade dreams

Galaxian machineDiary date: 29th May, 1985

Galaxian, Pac-Man, Defender, Space Invaders, Track and Field, Star Wars. Worlds of wonder when anything seemed possible.

Engrossing, state-of-the-art video games in colourful, custom-made cabinets. Seedy arcades in gloomy rooms with sticky, concrete floors. Tumbling coins landing loudly on silver-metal trays. Piercing, earworm music looping endlessly. A grabbing claw, too frail to carry off its booty. Armies of upright fruit machines, bandits’ arms poised and ready. Air hockey, shoot ’em ups, water guns, penny falls, basketball and bingo. A horse race on sticks with a random, last-minute winner.

Games you wish you were good at.

Players huddled round glowing screens, murmuring appreciatively as the latest level starts. Initials rolling upwards in a slow scroll. A hi-score that speaks of unseen worlds.

Games you wish you had the cash to play.

Checking shiny trays for the forgotten coppers that could be just the start. Longing looks at the Change machine. Pinball wizards making their money last forever. Side-by-side racing cars with pedals the penniless players can’t reach. A game demo so good it saves the cost of feeding the hungry slots.

Games you sit inside. Games you stand on, or in front of, or next to. 1UP, 2UP, 3UP, 4UP.

Games you lose, and games you win. Games you play just to see what’s next.

Games you wish the girl from Art would watch you play.

A teenager in a glowing room, fingers dancing on a complex controller. Hypnotic, immersive action on a rich, realistic screen.

A headset with a microphone. Go left. I’ll look upstairs. Invisible collaborators from across the town and around the world. Competitors, enemies, teammates. Cover me, I’m going in. Hi-scores constantly redefined as ratings, reaction times or efficiency. Games played with whoever you want, whenever they’re there. Fly solo or assemble the dream team.

Games you lose, and games you win.

Games that check your heartbeat and sense your movement. Watch and be watched.

Games you play just to see what’s next.

Games you wish the girl from Art would watch you play.

 

(Image credit: http://www.coinopspace.com)

The only way is Ethics

WhatsApp logoDiary date: 19th May, 1985

Whoever wrote my diary 28-years ago this week sounds like a bit of a whinger. Whoever he is, he’s angsting about revision. A lot.

However, if you’re prepared to believe my A-Level-studying daughter, this is one area of life where times have definitely changed for the better. It seems the best place to deal with revision angst these days is not your desk or the library, but in fact mobile messaging service WhatsApp. A quick demo was enough to convince me that it might amount to more than the usual phone-based time-wasting, so I’ve magnanimously agreed not to pass final judgement until the exams are over – at which point my already irrelevant opinion will be even more academic.

As for the mutual support and expertise WhatsApp helps provide, a real-life example will tell you all you need to know. Faithfully reproduced from my daughter’s phone and saved for posterity, here’s a revision thread covering the complex, highbrow and morally challenging world of A-Level Philosophy and Ethics.

I pass no comment. But I may conceivably be arching an enigmatic eyebrow. Needless to say, names have been changed to protect the innocent:

AP: Shit for ethics I’ve barely gone over genetic engineering and war haha

EM: Neither but ive done bentham and kant

SC: Mee too

EM: So lets hope they come up!!

FG: Im going bentham and kant hopefully

AP: When it says prime mover, what argument is that from? Cosmo or aristotle?

FG: Aristotle

AP: Kkk chillin

SC: Im going ontological and god as creator if thats right

EM: Ok thats not terrible if they come up, wanted ma boy plato though

AP: I really dont mind any of philosophy but not god as creator

FG: I was hoping cosmological?

AP: I wanted paleys watch but that was too optimistic

EM: All the ones i havent done properly have come up apart from science and religion, which is scary

SC: The 2 i know quotes for arent there ffs haha

EM: Can i use ‘good will shines forth like precious jewel’ for kant in ethics?

SC: Yeah

AP: I literally havent even looked at genetic engineering!!!! Scared 😦

FG: I know a long teleological quote, i want that to come up

AP: Quite honestly, im going to fail

EM: Mee too

AP: Seriously id be better off not turning up

EM: Gonna die

AP: Its gonna be horrific

SC: Im gonna bring snacks for that six min break haha

AP: Cant seem to find all my revision for ethics, theres an issue

FG: So funny how we have a six minute break i dont quite understand

SC: Wonder why six not five

AP: Hahaha

FG: We wont leave the room

EM: Omg gals this time tomorrow we’ll have finished philo!!! Woooo

AP: No guys ive lost all my ethics

AP: No ono

AP: well im failing ethics.

The death of a time and a place for everything

Diary date: 12th May, 1985

Amazon LockerI did two utterly unremarkable things this week in 1985, but they were exactly the kind of things I started followthehumming to help me spot.

First off, I went to the university library twice to do some research on Swedish canals (sounds odd I know, but don’t be alarmed, I’ve written before about how this forms part of my secret superpower). The library itself was about three miles away, so going there wasn’t a decision to be taken lightly, eating as it did into valuable drinking time.

Secondly, I waited at home all evening for a phone call that never came (don’t worry, I’m over her now – or at least I was until I started re-reading my diaries!).

What on earth was I thinking? Why didn’t I just turn on my tablet, connect to the nearest wi-fi and do my research sitting in Starbucks? Or just put my mobile on vibrate and head to the nearest bar to drown my sorrows in anticipation of what was about to happen?

Clearly the fact that the technology involved was a distant dream at the time didn’t help, but what these stories really bring to life is the very different relationship we had with ‘place’ in the 80’s.

Back then, place sat high on the list of stuff you needed to keep an eye on. If you agreed to meet someone somewhere at a certain time, the arrangement was locked and loaded. Once things were under way, you couldn’t alter your plans without leaving someone stranded. Today, we don’t even agree to meet up, we just agree to agree to meet up later, details to be confirmed – with at least the one consequent benefit of it now being very hard to be late for anything.

Activities happened in predictable places. Phone calls were taken wherever the phone was  plugged in – a draughty hall in my case. Watching TV happened in the living-room with everyone crowded round, rather than in isolated pockets of the house and on lots of different devices. Books were browsed and bought in a bookshop. ‘Computing’ happened three feet in front of the television into which you’d plugged your ZX-81. Video games were played in a seedy arcade. Listening to your music library happened wherever your parents had set up their ‘Music Centre’ – the enormous record-and-cassette-tape-playing monster that has now been replaced by the ubiquitous iPod. Even living itself was location-specific, and took place either in the kitchen or the living-room, probably the only two rooms where your mum and dad thought it was acceptable to turn on the central heating.

Place continues to evolve. With Amazon Locker, the world’s largest online retailer has decided that even the home is not sacrosanct. The items you’ve bought from them can now simply be delivered to you as an individual – wherever you are.

As technology changes, so the idea of place is gradually becoming more fluid and more personal.

Place feels less and less like something external with which we interact.

Instead, it has started travelling with us.

Why Facebook friending doesn’t mean friendship

Diary date: 29th April, 1985

FriendsI’m depressed. Or rather, my 1985 self is depressed. My diary today is a stark and rather maudlin list of the names of eight good friends I’m about to leave behind – probably forever*. I’m getting ready to go back to university in Hull, but more importantly – now that they have successfully launched me from the family nest – my parents are in the process of upping sticks and moving house from rural Norfolk to the bright lights of the Bavarian capital, Munich. Once they move, ‘going home’ will never be the same again.

The eight names are like a roll call of the lost.

Keep in touch, maybe? Send letters? Ridiculous. At 19, the very idea was embarrassing – and how did you put pub banter in writing anyway? The occasional phone call? No chance. No access to a phone and no money for calls either.

No, all is lost. Might as well forget them all now and be done with it.

Facebook: compare and contrast.

Life these days couldn’t be more different. Facebook and other social tools mean that losing contact is almost more difficult than maintaining it, and relationships can seemingly be sustained with much larger numbers of people. According to an April 2013 study by Stephen Wolfram,  the median number of friends per person on Facebook has now reached the dizzy heights of 342. This number varies with age of course, with younger users having substantially more ‘friends’ than those in older age groups.

The people we ‘friend’ on Facebook change with age too. Most of our friends in our younger years tend to be about our own age – then as we get older we start branching out a little. Wolfram also explains why it is that so many of our friends appear to have more friends than we do – a real world phenomenon called the friendship paradox.

Facebook even means people can make relatively intimate contact in anticipation of possible future friendship – say, hooking up online before going somewhere new – perfect for today’s university newbies.

It seems numbers of friends may be important for reasons other than notional popularity too – the more friends you have, the more money you’re allegedly likely to earn. In 2009, the BBC cited a 35-year study of 10,000 US students which suggested that the most financially comfortable in later life were those that had the most friends when they were at school. Each extra friend added a not insignificant 2% to their future salary.

Robin Dunbar

Robin Dunbar

But friendship surely isn’t a numbers game.  And is it really possible to have active friendships with the hundreds of contacts that Facebook encourages? Enter British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who proposed a hard-wired limit to the number of people with whom we can maintain stable social relationships – an idea popularised as Dunbar’s number. The most oft-quoted Dunbar figure is around 150 – way below Wolfram’s median of about 400 friends for Facebook users in their early twenties.

The obvious conclusion is that what’s happening on Facebook (and elsewhere) isn’t friendship in its traditional sense, but a set of relationships built more loosely around values like mutual awareness and availability. As a result, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Facebook and (more effectively) Google+ have both introduced ways for us to group friends according to the kind of relationship we want to have with them. In other words, they’re facilitating their users’ retreat to something closer to Dunbar’s number.

Of the eight friends I left behind in 1985, the absence of social media combined with our collective male apathy meant that I eventually lost touch with all but one. I’m sure the current crop of Facebook users will fare far better, but the jury’s still out on whether they’ll be able to maintain the extraordinary pace they’ve set themselves.

*In fact, it turned out to be about 23 years, but I wasn’t far wrong, so let’s not split hairs.

Ten reasons why a Kindle is more than just reading

Diary date: 29th March, 1985

I’d forgotten how much obligatory reading I used to have to do. In 1985, I was in the first year of my degree course in French and Scandinavian Studies (mostly Swedish, with a bit of Danish thrown in for good measure). I was never the fastest of readers, so by the time I’d got through Stendhal‘s epic Le Rouge et Le Noir (which, according to my diary, I bought today), the entire four-year course was all but over.

Le Rouge et Le Noir

These days, it feels like it would be so much easier.

Yes, I’m talking about my Kindle.

I haven’t read a physical book since I was introduced to my Kindle; but I’m not sure ‘read’ is really the right word – Kindling is an activity that feels different enough to deserve its own name.

Like everything else, Kindling comes with its good and bad points, so here are my top ten reasons why it’s great – plus another five that should reassure you that my love is not blind.

The good stuff

1. I can read faster on my Kindle.

I have absolutely no scientific evidence for this whatsoever, but as a notoriously slow reader, I can tell when I’m motoring through pages at a decent lick – and my Kindle maximum is a darn sight higher than my standard top speed.

2. I never have to buy trashy airport novels or exceed my baggage allowance with loads of weighty books.

I have as much of the world’s literature as I can afford already in my pocket – and it will never weigh an ounce more, even if I do decide to buy Le Rouge et Le Noir at some point for old times’ sake.

3. I can try before I buy.

As someone from the old school of being morally obliged to finish a book once I’ve started it, sample chapters are a godsend and can save me months of heartache and frustration. I just wish my Kindle had been around before I bought The Da Vinci Code. There’s a few months of my life I’ll never see again.

4. I can concentrate on what I’m doing.

There’s nothing else really going on to get in the way of some serious reading, like dog-eared pages, coffee cup stains or distracting covers. The uniformity of the overall experience lets me hone my powers of Kindling to the max.

5. No one knows what I’m reading.

Embarrassing books or covers are no longer a worry in public places. I haven’t read Fifty Shades of Grey and have no intention of doing so, but you get the idea. ‘Nuff said.

6. I have a vague feeling of being part of something.

In a spooky way, I feel just a teensy bit connected to other books and other people. I can ignore both if I want to, but at least they’re there if I need them.

7. I Kindle on my own terms.

Font size and line spacing are suddenly up to me, not an anonymous typesetter somewhere. If that isn’t power, I don’t know what is.

8. I can save my favourite bits.

Not just from one book, but from every book I read – and keep them all together in one place. I have no idea why I find this so cool, but I do.

9. I actually look up words I don’t understand.

In the past, I would almost never have looked up the meaning of a word I didn’t know in a dictionary – especially if I was cosy and warm and tucked up in bed. On my Kindle, I do it all the time and now know the meaning of crepitus , xenobiotic and of course, sciolism.

10. I can fool myself that my eyesight is not deteriorating.

Just adjust that font size and pretend it’s not happening. Who knows, it might not be.

The not-so-good stuff

1. Every book feels a bit the same.

There’s so little that obviously distinguishes one book from another – size, weight, colour, font, spacing – that I occasionally get myself all mixed up and start wondering why Jack Reacher is suddenly in Life of Pi.

2. You can’t easily flick backwards to check stuff.

OK, you can, but not easily or quickly enough for my liking, and especially not if you’re going back a long way and need to check the name of a minor soldier you last encountered 300 pages ago in War and Peace.

3. Pages don’t stay the same.

This is probably just me, but I remember a lot of what’s-happened-when in a book from the physical layout of the page. I’ll know for example that a particular scene happened a couple of pages after the start of the previous chapter, on a page with lots of dialogue and a long, solid paragraph at the bottom, and with a speck of mud-coloured dirt in the top right-hand corner. Kindling doesn’t give me these kind of clues, and if a bit of mud-coloured dirt is on one page, it’s on every page.

4. There’s no hard evidence of what you’ve read.

Finishing a book has always provided a moment of minor celebration and achievement for me, but somehow I don’t get the same buzz with my Kindle. Putting a completed book on a shelf somewhere has been like a rite of passage. All I’ve got now is a screen full of digital covers that only I ever see. My bookshelves are starting to look rather forlorn, and increasingly either out of date, empty, or filled with other stuff that’s probably even harder to dust. If I was in the bookshelf industry, I might start thinking about diversifying.

5. You can’t see what other people are reading and get inspired by it.

Watching someone absorbed in a book on the train and making a mental note to buy a copy is becoming a thing of the past. I can confirm that peering closely at fellow travellers’ Kindles to try and achieve the same effect is frowned upon and considered impolite, creepy and whatever else it was that woman said before she moved to the other side of the carriage.

Happy Kindling!