02 May 2009

The Value of Knowing How Stuff Works

I was in a thrift store yesterday and came across an old automatic fire alarm.  It was a wind-up bell-clapping mechanism triggered by a thermostat.  Just by holding it you hand, your could feel how it worked.  There was a time when most equipment was like that.  You could look at a device and get a pretty good idea of how worked, how to fix it and what its limitations where.  You could even do this with electronic equipment once you learned to recognize a few basic component types.  I am old enough to have grown up in a world that was mostly like that, but I may well have been in the last generation to do so.  For example, I used to repair my cars myself, diagnosing problems by sound and smell.  I haven't touched an engine in years though, partly because I can afford more reliable cars now, but partly because when I look under the hood of a modern automobile I can't find the engine.  My best friend's dad was a TV repair man, who learned his trade as a radioman in the Marines.  He know his craft was in its twilight the first time he saw a "gutless wonder", a unit with hardly anything in it but 2  big ICs and a high-voltage transformer.

Now, I don't mean to sound like some kind of old crabby guy here.  I'm getting to a point.  Today, most people are surrounded by world of gadgets and appliances of stunning complexity and haven't a clue as to how most of it works.  And I say "how it works" instead of "how they work" because these gadgets are all working together, as a system.  You punch a text message into your cell phone and hit send and a few minutes later a post appears on Twitter and chances are you literally have no idea what happened in between, or how much information you exposed about yourself in the process.  Frankly, I think it's a little dangerous to be so dependent on an interconnected world most people don't understand.  (James Burke talked about this kind of danger in his "Connections" program over 30 years ago, a program that made a strong impression on me as a child, but the world of 30 years ago just seems quaint now.)  And it's more than a little dangerous when these people are regulating this world they don't understand, lawmakers who have never used e-mail, whose mental model of the internet is "a series of tubes" and who are constantly surrounded by paid lobbyists representing agendas that often run counter to public interest.

What does all of that have to do with OpenBTS?  One of the motivations for releasing a GSM stack in open source is to help curious people understand how cellular technologies work, to demystify the GSM network by reducing it to a simple form.  This is happening, to some degree, through students and "makers" who have built working OpenBTS nodes as class or club projects.  I think there are about a dozen such systems out there now, not counting commercial development kits, and I love to hear from these people.  Congratulations to everyone who has even tried to run OpenBTS, but especially to those who succeeded.  That first phone call was pretty exciting, wasn't it?  And it was very satisfying to know how it happened.  Granted, we're not educating lawmakers yet, if that's even a meaningful goal, but it's a start.


  1. For years before openBTS, I had been working on just such a project with painstakingly slow progress - thank you for your awesome work and helping an entire community of curious people learn about how things work.

    It is through projects like this that move open source out of the conventional "box" that a new generation of hackers will be able compete with the ever common "two chip" television and its ilk, learning how to hack the next generation of sealed-box technology.

  2. I remember back in the early 1970s when I was a young assistant professor in the physics department at a liberal arts college. There was quite a discussion about how physics labs should work. One camp wanted high tech automated equipment that would take some measurement and display the results for the student to use. One arguement this camp used was that automated data collection was the wave of the future, and that's what the students would use after the graduated. The other camp wanted simple equipment where the student could see exactly what what happening. They argued that this was a physics class, not a tecnhical training class where the students were expected to learn to opearate equipment, and furthermore, unless the student knew what was actually being measured and how, he/she could not identify sources of error or make informed hypotheses when something unexpected occurred. In short, this camp understood "the value of knowing how stuff works".

  3. My test equipment of preference is still a Tektronix 7600-series mainframe scope. Whatever limitations it might have, I always know exactly what it is showing me.

  4. Hi i really like the idea behind the openBTS project and i was wondering if one could create a protocol where by a mobile software client can be used for making calls as a mobile PBX system through signals of existing BTS.