Wednesday, July 21, 2010


In the good old, early days of computing (or perhaps the good old, middle days), before the advent of PCs, computers were shared by many people at once. Rather than working directly on the computer, you would work on one of many computer terminals that connected to the computer.

My first computer terminal was a TI Silent 700. It looked like a typewriter with two little rubber cups on the back. Instead of sheets, it used a roll of paper. To connect to the computer, you would push a handset into the cups and dial a number that would connect your terminal to a modem (modulator/demodulator) at the computer. After a few seconds of sounds similar to those made by a fax machine a little prompt would be printed on the paper roll saying: login.

After entering a user ID and password, you would be connected: in this case, at 300 baud or 0.3Kbps.

Since the connection between the computer and the terminal was not fast it operated in a mode called half-duplex. It was bidirectional, but only one direction was active at time. The terminal and the computer could not communicate and listen to one another simultaneously. For everything to work, one had to listen while the other talked.

Half-Duplex People
I hadn't thought about half-duplex communications in years. However, the other night at dinner as one of our companions began droning on and on, repeating herself again and again seemingly unwilling to hear anything that anyone else had to say, Jonathan pointed out that she was in half-duplex mode: as long as she was talking, nothing was getting in.

Jonathan had nailed it. As I considered his analogy, it occurred to me that it's simply no use trying to have a discussion when someone is operating half-duplex and stuck in transmit mode; you might as well be talking to your television.

This morning as Iris and I sat in the bagel shop, one of the regulars who is herself a half-duplexer sat down next to us and launched into transmit mode. In the context of this morning, she didn't repeat herself. However, she did repeat what she'd said the previous morning and the morning before that and the morning before that. She's getting a new dental crown, the dentist says she'd do well to get implants, it's going to cost a lot of money, and so on.

As we got into the car to drive to the office, I commented to Iris that I have no trouble focusing intently with loud traffic or the din of a crowed restaurant or the TV and radio playing; they're all background noise to me. However, when a half-duplexer gets stuck in transmit mode, I get completely distracted by it.

Addicted to...
In the coffee shop in Great Barrington, there are several regulars who are transmit-only half-duplexers. Typically, a transmitter will sit down with someone, start talking and then keep talking (seemingly never needing to breathe). If the person at whom he's projecting begins to ignore him (it needs to be fairly obvious that he's doing so), the transmitter will simply turn his head until he catches the eye of someone else foolish enough to look in his direction. He'll then project at the eye-catcher until the eye-catcher obviously ignores him and the dance continues.

I seem to be a magnet for transmit-only half-duplexers and the attraction seems to be mutual. I can sit for long periods of time listening to transmitters go on and on and on. If the transmitter is projecting elsewhere, I seem to be drawn in like a moth to a flame. They say that addiction and allergies are closely related; we're addicted to that to which we're allergic. I used to attribute my seemingly compulsive attraction to transmitters to being allergic to stupidity: my salvation coming in the form of headphones and iTunes.

I've come to the conclusion that it's something other than being allergic to stupid. There's something about someone talking with no one really listening that results in me wanting to listen to them, to hear them. I guess I believe that they're stuck in transmit mode because they believe that by talking incessantly someone will finally listen. So, if I simply listen and ask questions, maybe they'll get unstuck.

However, I'm not sure that this is the case. One problem I have is that, while others seem capable of simply ignoring what's being said, I really do listen and I interact. When a transmitter says something that seems inconsistent to me or doesn't make sense, I'll ask about it. When she says something dubious, I'll ask about it. When he makes a face or sighs or looks about, I'll ask about it.

Asking lots of questions of people lost in transmission leads to varied results. Some transmitters really engage, digging deeper and deeper into the topic of transmission. Others seem confused continuing to transmit whatever it was they were saying, but keeping an eye on you just in case. Some are so transmit-only that they roll right over the question as though it hadn't been asked or they pause momentarily to suggest that you not interrupt them. Others reset, rolling the tape back to the beginning and starting over again. And occasionally, after a few questions, a transmitter will stop and say, "I don't know, what do you think?"

Everyone is Half-Duplex
Of course, in the end, we all run half-duplex: no matter how hard you try, if you're talking then you ain't listening. Some of us are biased towards transmitting and others towards receiving. As stuck as one may seem to be, no one is purely a transmitter or purely a receiver. The question is: what causes the bias? Is it a desire to be seen and heard or is transmitting a form of obfuscation and avoidance? Are there people who can only think by talking and therefor talk all the time? Are receivers hiding or are they curious? What do we each try to accomplish by transmitting and what do we each try to accomplish by receiving?

What do you do when encountering someone lost in transmission? Do you avoid making eye contact? Do you engage? Do you try to politely ignore them or feign interest? Do you try to transmit more loudly?

Does your transmitter ever get stuck in the on position? When and why does that happen? How do others react to you? Or are you more the receive-only type? How come?

What's your bias?

Happy Wednesday,

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