Joe Levi:
a cross-discipline, multi-dimensional problem solver who thinks outside the box – but within reality™

It’s not a modem

Once upon a time, long, long ago, people used to connect their computer to another computer using a device called a modem.

This modem would “modulate” the digital information from their computer into an analog signal that was sent over an analog telephone network to another modem at the other end of the phone call.

The modem on the other end of the call would then “demodulate” the analog signal back into digital information and pass it on to that computer.

That, folks, is why they called it a “modulator-demodulator” – or “modem” for short.

Back and forth this modulation and demodulation of data would go, in what could only be described as a slow and noisy process (good thing we only had to listen to the modems “shaking hands” and not the entire modulated conversation!).

Then, one day, people were able to get a digital line to their houses! No longer would they need the squeak and squawk of modems modulating and demodulating digital data to and from analog lines.

But these connection weren’t Ethernet connections, they were ISDN, digital subscriber lines (or “DSL) or cable, or something else. We couldn’t just plug our Ethernet cable into the cable’s coax or DSL’s RJ-11… We had to do something to bridge the Ethernet connection from our computers to the ISP’s network… we had to have some sort of a device to do this… but it didn’t modulate or demodulate anything. It was just changing one digital signal into another digital signal. It was bridging the gap between these two types of networks… what was that magical device called?

Not a “cable modem.” Not an “ISDN modem.” Not even a “DSL modem.” Oh, that’s right, it’s called a BRIDGE!

Technorati Tags: technology,modem,improperly used words

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4 Responses

  1. Lawrence Damewood says:

    While it may be true that there are technical differences between a modem and a bridge, this should not have any effect on terminology, or the proper use thereof. Anyone who has studied Saussure knows that the assignment of a word to an object is arbitrary. It is society’s understanding of a word that gives it meaning. For example, if I use the word “rock,” people would understand that I’m talking about those hard things in the dirt. On the other hand, if I suddenly decided to use the word “woblet” to describe those hard things in the dirt, people would think I was an idiot.
    As everybody knows, there are many different levels of communication. There are two that are relevant to this discussion — social communication and technical communication. The truth is, most every field of human endeavor has a vocabulary specific to its field. While using the word “rock” might be adequate in everyday conversation, using the word “rock” when talking to a geologist might not be adequate. I may have to use words like cobble, pebble, or boulder to convey my thoughts. Technical vocabulary is particularly important in the computer field. New discoveries have required the assignment of, and in some cases the creation of, many new words. For someone in the computer field, it is likely necessary to be able to differentiate between a modem and a bridge. However, there are millions of computer users in the world who have sufficient expertise to perform user functions, but lack the expertise, or even the interest, to tell the difference between a modem and a bridge. In common language, “modem” has been defined as that blinking box that connects my computer to that wire coming into my house. It is a term that average users understand. Of course, those who make a living in the computer field have need of more specific language. To them, it is necessary to know both the terms “modem” and “bridge”, and to know the differences between the two objects.
    So which term is correct? It all depends on who you’re talking to. There is no real right or wrong here. The purpose of language is communication. The best word to choose is the word that best conveys the intended meaning.
    To test my point, I’ve conducted a little experiment. For years, debate has raged on whether tomatoes are fruits or vegetables. I designed an experiment to determine which term has the more positive effect on tomato plants, which would give evidence of which is the correct term. Last year, I planted tomatoes, and all season long, I called them “fruit.” This year, I also planted tomatoes, but I called them “vegetables.” Since I have not yet harvested any tomatoes this year, my research is not complete. However, I have already concluded that tomatoes don’t really care.

  2. Joe says:

    Hi Larry, and welcome!

    It’s always nice to debate semantics… so buckle your seat-belt and hang on. 🙂

    While I accept your premise I reject your conclusion… politely, of course.

    Let’s there is a remote village in a far off land. All adults are killed off by a plague, leaving only small children with only a basic understanding of linguistics and semantics. Somehow they survive and begin to rebuild their society.

    One day, while digging in the dirt someone finds a “hard thing.” They remember seeing a “hard thing from the dirt” that their parent had called “quartz.” Since this was hard and came from the dirt, they decide to call it quartz. They then tell all their friends about it and eventually society begins calling all rocks “quartz.” The society knows what the word “quartz” means to them, and therefore, successful communication has been accomplished.

    One day after the children have all grown up, an outsider stumbles upon the remote village. This person knows what “quartz” is and hears them referring to “granite” and “boxite” and “topaz” and basic conglomerates as “quartz.” The outsider assumes he’d stumbled into a society of idiots.

    You state “there are millions of computer users in the world who have sufficient expertise to perform user functions, but lack the expertise, or even the interest, to tell the difference between a modem and a bridge.” Agreed, with provisions: by “millions of computer users in the world” I’m afraid you’re lumping in people on MySpace, AOL, etc. with the rest of the computer users, which would negate your use of the word “expertise” entirely.

    But I digress.

    Calling quartz a rock is fine. Calling quartz a mineral is also okay, and more accurate/descriptive than simply calling it a rock. Calling quartz a crystal further defines the object with properties that are understood to be common among other crystals. Further identifying a quartz “rock” as Chalcedony, Agate, Jasper, Aventurine, Tiger’s eye, Amethyst, Citrine, Prasiolite, Rose quartz, Rutilated quartz, Milk quartz, Smoky quartz, or Morion (to name a few) further distinguishes the rock from other forms of quartz.

    Have I dazzled you with techno-babble yet?

    I bring all this up because Henri Louis Frederic de Saussure (1829-1905) was a Swiss mineralogist, but I think you were referring to Ferdinand de Saussure (1857-1913) a Swiss linguist (the brother of René).

    The point is, in my opinion, there is a clear distinction from basic logic and Saussure’s basic notions of Saussurian thought in forming the central tenets of structural linguistics.

    Logic tells us that just because quartz is a rock, that does not mean all rocks are quartz.

    Further, Amethyst is quartz, but not all quartz is Amethyst.

    If someone heard another person trying to describe a simple piece of sedimentary gravel as a quartz crystal, the person who knew what quartz REALLY was would think the other to be an idiot. Would they be wrong to do so?

    A modem has nothing to do with networking, other than some modems can connect a computer to another computer which may (or may not) be connected to a network (such as the Internet).

    So, back to our quandary: just because a village of idiots incorrectly calls the “blinky box that connects them to the Internet” a “modem” should we all do so?

    Should we (who know better) accept this terminology? I’d argue no, we should not. Perhaps we should let those that use the term incorrectly continue to do so as a means or mechanism with which to identify the idiots in the village (then again, we already have AOL and MySpace to help with that differentiation).

    Would my article have helped some of the idiots from the village learn the folly of their ways, and thereby provide an opportunity to overcome a certain level of idiocy? Perhaps.

    In any event, those that wish to learn can now do so; those that do not wish to learn can choose to remain in the village with the other idiots. 🙂

    Of course by “idiot” I do not intent any offense, rather, I use the term according to the original Greek ἰδιώτης, idiōtēs meaning a “person lacking professional skill,” which in the example is appropriate.

    To conclude, I speak to your tomato experiment; are they a fruit or a vegetable? Since a “fruit” is the ripened ovary (together with seeds) of a flowering plant, and the “tomato” itself is generally accepted to be the the “ripe red thing with the seeds inside” I think it’s obvious that a tomato is a fruit.

    Your experiment would seem to support this. Last year when you called them “fruit” you had a harvest. This year, when you’ve been calling them vegetable, you’ve had no harvest. Coincidence? 😉

    Good points, and thank you for the comment!

  3. Lawrence Damewood says:

    So you like arguing semantics. Good. I have a degree of expertise in semantics. I was an English major in collidj.
    Your village allegory is not as hypothetical as one might think. Language evolves. Any time a population is separated from the mainstream, whether by geography, society, income, race, or a host of other reasons, language can evolve in different directions. In the case of the village of children, the term “rock” is replaced by the term “quartz.” “Quartz,” then, becomes a colloquialism. While a colloquialism might not be accepted as a standard term by the general population, it is a perfectly acceptable term among the population that uses it. In many cases, the colloquialism becomes recognized by the mainstream. Consider the term “polecat.” While this term might not be used by most English-speaking Americans, most Americans know that a polecat is a skunk. It is likely that, in time, the villager’s use of the word “quartz” would become widely recognized, even though most people probably wouldn’t use it.
    Regarding your original posting, I noted that you included details regarding the inner workings of a modem, but no discussion on the inner workings of a bridge. Based on that, I concluded the goal of your argument was to correct society, not enlighten it. I now concede my conclusion was inaccurate. I sincerely applaud your efforts to educate society. Unfortunately, however, you could be fighting an uphill battle. Society has become accustomed to using the term “modem.” Still, you may succeed. When I took my first college electronics class, the unit used to measure frequency was the cycle. The term “hertz” was not yet widely used. I remember thinking that “hertz” would never catch on. After all “cycle” more accurately described the motion of the electric signal. But here we are, thirty-odd years later, and the term “cycle” has gone the way of the slide rule.
    You are correct when you say that a tomato is a fruit. According to scientists, a fruit is the seed-bearing organ of a plant. But then, by that definition, so is a coconut, or an ear of corn, or the pod from an opium poppy. Also according to scientists, the term “vegetable” is not defined. (I’ve always found it interesting that, while “vegetable” is not defined by science, “vegetation” is.) However, to a chef, there is a world of difference between fruits and vegetables. I therefore stand behind my original argument. Every field of human endeavor has its own vocabulary, and choosing the correct term depends upon who you’re talking to. The purpose of language is to communicate. The more understandable the communication, the more effective the communication. If, in order to make a point, a term is used in a manner that some might consider incorrect, so be it. If I’m talking to a scientist, I will call a tomato a fruit. If I’m talking to a waiter, I would call a tomato a vegetable. If I’m talking to someone with no particualar computer training, I will call a bridge a cable modem. If I’m talking to you, well, let’s just say I now know better.
    Have you ever wondered who writes dictionaries? Most people assume dictionaries are written by one or several college professors. This is only partially correct. Actually, the editors poll experts of English and linguistics, asking what they think society believes the meaning of each word is. Once these surveys are completed, the editors compile the definitions into a single, concise definition. So in a sense, dictionaries are written by lots of ordinary, everyday people.

  4. Ethernet (10BaseT) uses Manchester Encoding. In this encoding only two voltages are used. A rise in voltage indicates a 1, a drop a 0. Between bits the signal goes to which ever voltage would result in a change in voltage for the next bit. This is a digital signal, and the waves look very square. Cable and DSL use variants of Quadrature Amplitude Modulation (QAM) to encode the signals. The QAM wave form starts out as a sine wave, and the phase and amplitude of the signal are modified to represent different bits. The QAM wave form is analog in shape. Therefore it really is a modem.

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