Saturday, September 11, 2010

The Speed At Which We Are Changing
The Laconic Flapper

Have you ever stopped and thought about the speed at which we are changing?  I recently did because of  Hurricane Earl popping on through my area and leaving me without electricity  for one day!

Just two hundred years ago, people lived without electricity all the time and thought nothing of it...

They had woodstoves for heat and cooking, oil lamps and candles for lighting, plays, books and conversation for entertainment and all sorts of hobbies such as embroidery, horse riding, hiking, bird collecting, stamp collecting and so on. 

You get the picture, the hobbies still exist, of course, but there has been an explosion in the last hundred years of change upon change, accelerating at an ever more rapid pace...

Now, we haven't reached the levels of Star Trek or the Jetsons, but we have come a very long way!

Think about it, in my lifetime alone, (and I'm turning fifty in February of next year), I have seen a lot in a very, very short time...

I've seen television go from black and white to colour, when I was a kid, we had those little TV's that you had to squint at and the programming often only ran for a part of the day.  When my family moved to Yellowknife, Northwest Territories we only had programming for two hours a day. 

And the programming was pretty humble, Mr. Dressup and Canada Film Board mostly, but after a few years there we were quite used to it...
It's All Science Fiction in the End

So when we moved back down south, I almost went into culture shock because the advancements kept on coming while we were gone! Colour TV had come into common usage while we were away, and it seemed everyone had to get one...  This was around the mid-seventies.  That was only thirty five years ago, not a long period of time when you start to consider it.

And the changes that came in during the 1970's seemed to me really are the catalysts that started the acceleration at which the ball rolling...

The introduction of the pocket calculator (My first calculator was a hand me down from my brother, it was huge, heavy and went through batteries at an alarming speed... It cost over three hundred dollars and boy, was I ever proud of that thing!)

They were working on the first publicly available desktop computers, which started leaching out into general usage near the end of the decade or in the beginning of the eighties.  Remember the Commodore 64 and the Vic 20?

Think about those two things, a pocket calculator?  Wouldn't that start designers thinking along the lines about what else could be handheld?  Like phones and computers?

And computers, well, we all know that this was very huge and defined a lot of what came after...
Dragons Do Dream
In a previous post, I talked about how I played Dungeons and Dragons during the seventies, we used many different types of dice, our character sheets were paper which we filled in by hand, the dungeon master used hexagonal graph paper to create dungeons in advance which we used graph paper to move along on our journeys, and we did this all manually, with no computers!  There were also books used for reference during the gameplay that we all ordered by mail and someone produced these on an old printing press out of their basement in the states somewhere... 

It took a lot of time and we played as much as we could, in basements, unused classrooms at the school, in our living rooms on a rotating basis so our parents wouldn't get fed up and kick us out...  There was a lot of furor and press about the geeks who played this game obsessively, and someone even wrote a book about some kid disappearing because of  "D & D", so our parents were very concerned about us!
Blue Bobbles
The total irony of that paranoid fear is that drugs were much more dangerous than a bunch of geeky kids playing "Dungeons & Dragons", there were people shooting up in our school bathrooms during the day sometimes for heavens sake! 

The eighties saw the advent of personal computers that did more, way more, and cellular phones... I can't remember if digital cameras first made their appearance then or not, if they did, no-one could afford them anyway!  Other things that really took off during that decade were really good sound systems, the use of audiotapes that weren't in an eight track format, and the first gaming systems came into general use.  (Sony, Nintendo, and whoever else was trying to capture the market...)  Which is where the computer started anyway, but now personal computers were being used for 'useful' things as well, such as taxes, word documents and spreadsheets... Ugh!
Soft and Goldern
Oh yes, and let's not forget the video tapes, the big war between VHS and Betamax was not won by Sony Betamax although that format provided better quality!  I think Sony learned a big marketing lesson on that one and spiked the next battle they were in for ascendance (DVD - Blue Ray and the high quality DVD) by creating a gaming unit that was both a blue ray player and a game unit... 

In 1990, I was 29 years old and decided to go back to university after five years in the military as a radio technician.  I went into computer science because everyone was saying that that was where all the good jobs in the near future were going to be created... And it looked interesting!

Prior to 1990, in the eighties, the faculties in universities that taught computer science taught 'data entry' and programming using punch cards and then moved on up to eight inch floppy disks...  (By the way, did you know the very first programmer was a woman (Ada Lovelace)?)

The 'science' of programming was done using Basic and Cobol, which took a lot of time.  In the nineties, Fortran (the first object oriented programming), early C, and APL were added, giving more languages, versatility and complexity to the core courses.  Of course, very quickly, as the years progressed, we saw newer version of C and Fortran, and the languages became more elegant and ornate allowing recursive programming, logic became more developed allowing us to cut down on the lines of code used to accomplish minor tasks and give more room for expanded modules that did much, much more...

What a lot of people don't understand is that the software developments (programming itself) also fueled the computer revolution, speeding up the rate of change as well!  The hardware people were hard pressed to develop better chips and technology to keep up with the demands of the software industry and were under a lot of pressure to provide what was needed.
Like My Ride?
In 1993, I switched from Computer Science to Electrical Engineering with my specialty in Computer Engineering...  I experienced firsthand some of the changes that were going on in hardware.  It was exhilarating!  And fast, very, very fast!  My first 'real' computer was a 486, and that was very expensive, and now it would be a doorstop!  Only a decade later...

My bachelor's thesis project was a software/hardware project in control systems.  We did a board with gyros on it that took measurements of the X, Y, and Z planes (backwards, forwards, and height)  and had a preprogrammed flight path.  If the minature helicopter we built the board for and tested it on deviated over a certain percentage due to wind turbulence or other things occuring, the onboard control system would try to adjust automatically and right the helicopter.  This was only 1994!  We did very well on this project, we won the IEEE prize the controls the year we graduated (1995) in engineering.  It was pretty ambitious for a couple of undergraduate students, and then I crashed the helicopter, but it was really cool!
Fear Of The Future
The hardware advances that were really necessary are ones we all know about...  The need for faster CPU's (Central Processes Units - the main brain of the computer.), and quicker Buses (not the rapid transit kind, but the internal highways that the CPUs used to pass and access information), more memory, smaller and better components. 

The first computer used tubes and discrete transistors, it fit into a huge room and could do math, that's about it...  When I was in the military, we had the old computers with tubes and transistors, and I used to help fix them and radios with tubes.  Talk about clunky!

One of the big advances for hardware for computers was the advent of integrated circuits.  They actually 'grow' these thing on a microscopic scale in order to get all the components necessary into the chips for your CPU's.  Semiconductors make the buses possible in order to provide the speeds and chip sizes to allow electronic to become very, very small and much faster!

In the nineties, databases came into play in software, and while you may not realize it, they were very, very important.  Relational databases that increased in scope (they were able to make them larger and more complex on the indexing and interconnections as time passed) allowed software programs to store data and make choices based the data they had access to in real time or on central servers they could access...  Scripting, UNIX, LINUX, Oracle, MS SQL Server, these all combined to allow usage over the internet to grow and become more 'user friendly'...

For the last thirteen years, I had worked for a company where I implemented configuration initially on a text file that was accessed by the software on a 'client layer' stored locally on their pc and then eventually through something called a 'middle tier' that was stored on a central server accessed via the internet. I saw this change and grow through the years, I was originally trained in ORACLE SQL and moved on to MS SQL server when our company was sold and the new owners wanted to used that.

The software started out as a client copy, which meant it resided on the local pc and only accessed the internet once in a while as a special feature (late eighties) and eventually because wholly browser based.  Which meant it resided on the internet in the central servers which the local pc accessed to get at their client specific databases in order to do business or get updates and newer versions of the software.
Databases allowed software to track client preferences, save their choices, search for data (such as real estate listings, appointments, businesses, items, clubs), and in some cases, allowed the program to 'suggest' based on past choices.  A weird type of rudimentary learning system, that advanced software quite a bit!  We used databases for most software these days, when we know it or not, and database scripting and advances in that area are responsible for part of the changes we see day to day.  The 'smart' software I proposed as a natural next step in this evolution would rely heavily on databases to build a profile of the enduser and help that user learn new things. Which were identified in his profile (data in the db) as areas that needed attention for whatever he was trying to accomplish.

A new theory has recently been proposed by a man named Nicholas Carr, that our brains are essentially being 'rewired' by our exposure to Google and the Internet.
I'm not actually surprised because human beings are very adaptable and we learn quickly to adjust to new toys, I mean tools!  I've ordered his book to check it out, (I know once a geek, always a geek!) and I'm looking forward to reading up on this topic.  It'll help me make up my mind on this issue...

And finally, I recently found a site that discussed how some Calgary, Canada scientists are on the verge of creating a 'human neurochip' that will allow an even newer era of advancements!

Maybe Data from Star Trek is on the edge of being possible after all!

Images by Teresa Young:

1. The Laconic Flapper - Jul.2010, 2. SciFi House - Jun.2007, 3. Dragons Do Dream - Mar.2010, 4. Blue Bobbles - May 2001, 5. Soft and Golden - Aug.2010, 6. Like My Ride? - Jun.2007, 7. Fear Of The Future - Aug.2000, 8. The Masked Marvel - Jan.2000.
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John Griggs said...

Ha ha! Spoken like a true geek -- except for the more sociological stuff which reveals you as more than that, lol.

I remember seeing my first color TV in 1960 watching returns on the John Kennedy election and being annoyed that I couldn't watch something else. I was 5 years old. After a certain hour you had white noise, and in the morning a test pattern and 400 hz tone so the techs could adjust the transmitter (which of course was all tubes) after it had cooled down overnight.

My first computers were in the 1970's. I had a single board Motorola 6800 based board from a company called "Ohio Scientific" (long out of business) and a little 6502 based (like Apple) C24P from Ohio Scientific. The C24P was radical in that it had it's own video built in (64 characters by 32 lines), a ROM'ed BASIC interpreter, basic machine language monitor program, and a whopping 4K or RAM. I programmed the cellular automata program called "Life" in it in machine language as hand assembled machine code. It was 1976 and microcomputers were not yet a household name.

My first "real" computer was an S100 system so-called for the big 100 pin passive backplane the system used. My first unit had a 2 megahertz Intel 8080 processor and a gigantic (for the time) 16K or static ram. Later I went to a 4 megahertz speed demon of a Z-80 processor (from Zilog, an Intel competitor) and 64k of main memory with 32k of additional "bank switched" auxiliary memory. That was 1977 and I paid several thousand in 1970's dollars for the privilege of having a more sophisticated system.

It was a CP/M based OS (look that up and Gary Kildall and how Gary lost out to Bill Gates for IBM's business) and when you used to call his company called Digital Research you often got Gary on the phone. That's how small and collegial the microcomputer world was back then.

Good article, Teresa. Nice exploration of how fast the basis of our life shifts now, and a walk down "memory lane" for me as well, lol.

Dalifan said...

Thanks John, speaking about memory lane;-) Sad thing is, I understand absolutely everything you're saying here... So I guess I am a true geek! We geeks really need to stick together! LOL!

In the late seventies, I watched my older brother put together a Texas Instruments kit, a Radio Shack TRS-80 and it was horribly expensive, in 1970's money as you so accurately put it...

And I was so smitten and fascinated by the electronics of it all that I ended up joining the Canadian Military a few years later to learn about it... NOT a popular pastime for women in those days and that was the ONLY way I could get anyone to teach it to me!

What people don't understand today is that the social changes have really kept pace with the technological changes...

When I was in high school, I was encourage to go into teaching or nursing, even though I was honor roll, had extremely high marks in sciences and maths I wasn't even TOLD about engineering! I had to find out about it years later when I went back to school as a mature student;-)

When I was in university in the nineties, some stats were passed around that were pretty shocking, only seven percent of electrical engineering students that finished these programs in Canadian universities were female, and only three percent actually worked in industry as engineers after they graduated...

I don't know what the stats are like now, but I bet they've gone up;-)