Old Time or New Time Hacks

I am old. So old that these stories may not relate to today’s youth. Still, I think the novelty of solutions might be a good stepping stone on solving problems. Always look for simple solutions to complex problems.

The first Shuttle Launch. The short story is that they held the launch because of an issue with the initial thrusters firing. If you look at the photos you will notice that they had 3 engines, controlled by a computer each. That is redundancy. Well, the computers were booted and nothing happened. I was there in the press area and mentioned to a newpaper guy standing next to me that they probably had a ‘race’ condition and needed to bring the computers up in sequence rather than all at once. Sure enough, not long thereafter NASA announced the problem and they would start the computers in sequence. You see, the computers, when starting up, would announce themselves and then listen to see who else announced. My guess was that if a computer heard two other computers announce, then it knew it was the first and would become the main controlling computer. Whether that was a correct guess or not didn’t matter, The correct solution as I mentioned was to start one computer then another. Since they were equal, they had all booted, said “I’m here” (talking over each other) and then waiting to hear who was next, which never happened. The old adage “Have you powered it off and on again” is quite appropriate.

HBO. Yes, Home Box Office (and other satellite services). Back in the day I worked for a company which made radio receivers for the military and also made different equipment for cable TV companys to receive satellite programming. This was at the early stages before a lot of providers jumped onboard. Few if any people had residential satellite TV receivers. There were some bars and places like that but the majority were cable companies. By the way, HBO and other services had no system in place to actually charge consumers and their signals were not scrambled, At the beginning I was able to buy a small home dish with what they called a patio mount. It was a triangular setup with two adjustments to manually move the dish position. In any event, you could watch HBO and others for free. I’ll speak about HBO which was representative of other services back then. They used 2 satellite channels on the same satellite. These satellites were in a fixed position in the sky and as such did not move. If you pointed your dish to that satellite and locked it down, you would receive up to 24 channels (C-Band) of services, perhaps HBO, WGN-TV, Headline News and so on. The news channels used one channel, but many movie services used 2.  News didn’t care about time zones but movie channels liked to announce when their movies started. If they had an east coast and west coast feed, they could start the movie on the west coast 3 hours later and announce that the movie started at 8pm. So it came to pass that a cable company would point to the satellite and choose whether they were an east coast time or the other channel as a west coast provider. Our receivers only required (essentially) a wire to be changed to change channels. I developed a way for them to add an extra 3 hours to the programming because HBO shut the east coast feed down after the last movie while the previous and then last movie would still be up on the west coast feed. Rather than set a timer to change that channel I noticed that after the last movie they played a promo then put up a test pattern. A fellow co-worker was trying to figure out a way to trigger on the time or on the test pattern. My solution was simple. When they showed the static test pattern, they also played a 1,000 cycle tone. A simple tone decoder and circuit cost pennies and it listened for a 1,000 cycle tone for say 5 seconds and shorted that wire and changed the receiver channel, thus switching the channel at the unattended cable company head end. The east coast viewers now got another 3 hours of viewing witch included the last movie being shown again. So I watched what happened in detail and came up with a cheap solution. Although that circuit was only pennies to make, I am sure that it was perhaps put into a rack-mound device and added thousands to the cost for the option!

International Telephone Hacking. At the same company, our equipment was also built for businesses but mostly military and NASA. We had lots of test equipment but nothing that was not available to the general public. Oh, that giant satellite dish was not a residential item, but as I say, you could buy one that worked pretty well for a couple hundred dollars, IF you were willing to manually point it. However for TV stuff you could leave it in one place to receive limited services. You could them point it at other satellites (like another 12 or so) to get other services. Eventually I got a dish with a motor which could be moved automatically. Anyway, on one of the C-Band satellites which had TV stations and movie channels, there were also 2 AT&T channels. When I hooked up some equipment and separated the signals, I was able to listen to one way telephone calls from the U.S. to other countries. I assume the other channel AT&T had was the reverse channel for those calls. As time went on and home TV reception of movies and so on became popular, most providers started scrambling their feeds. Like the beginnings of computer technology and even satellite TV stuff, early on it was the wild wild west and many things were free.

International Calls. In old movies you see someone placing an overseas telephone call and waiting and waiting. If a call comes in from ‘long distance’ or ‘overseas’, people run to the phone. That is because the ability to place those calls and capacity was limited (they didn’t have my satellite hacking ability yet I guess). Also the cost was tremendous. These days, using VOIP internet services a call overseas can be made at any time and for next to no cost or free. My provider charges less than a penny a minute to call many places 1/2 way around the world. An hour call might cost 45 cents. That is why I encourage people to not pay $50 a month for home phone service. If they need a ‘landline’ at home, get a cell and a cordless phone with Bluetooth connection to the cell phone, or just get VOIP service.

Generics. In the past many people shied away from generics and stayed with the name brands. In medicines a generic must be generally equivalent to a name brand, perhaps differing in size of the pill or binding agents/filler. An example is COSTCO warehouse. Many of it’s generic products are produced by a well-known company. A company may advertise a product and charge lots for it. However, some people are cost conscious rather than name-brand loyalists. So if a name brand also offers a generic they can pick up the extra sales although at a lower profit by offering both. While there may be a slight difference in performance between Duracell batteries sold at COSTCO and the Kirkland brand sold next to them on the shelf, they are both made by Duracell. You can search the internet for who makes generics of various products. On a side note, there are websites which tell you how not make an equivalent tasting food item (like McDonalds secret sauce). These generics may be close but not necessarily an exact copy. Yet still, many products have to tell you what they add to create a product. Other items may not be as obvious. Diphenhydramine is the main ingredient in allergy medicine. In small quantities it drys you up by also can make you a bit sleepy. Did you know that the generic ‘sleeping pill’ is perhaps just a larger dose of that allergy pill? People will buy both because of the marketing and labeling, yet it is the same active ingredient. It is like selling a turkey dinner as food, but a double dose being a sleeping and anti-weight reduction product.

Gasoline. Most cars require regular gasoline. I had a performance vehicle that I used the cheapest and lowest octane gasoline in with no ill effects. Yes, your manual may call for a higher grade but it may have only been recommended because it allowed the manufacturer to pass emissions requirements when submitting the vehicle to testing. In older cars I used to both check the mileage per gallon and listen for engine pinging as I reduced the octane level. You may be overpaying by getting a higher grade gasoline than needed. Also look to off-brand stations to save even more. There are Federal requirements to additives for gas and most just call their additive something different.

I noticed that certain items at places like Walmart may appear in different parts of the store with different prices. Always look around to see if an item might be used for two different things and appear in different locations. A simple change of the product number can trigger a different price even if the item is an exact duplicate. A funnel might be located in the auto section of the store but also in the housewares section. Speaking of that, many electronics manufacturers make small cosmetic or performance changes in a product,change the packaging and sell it to competing stores. Those store then say that the product over at the other store is not the same and thus don’t match price.

There are many more, but this has given you a bit of insight to look for alternatives.