Ancient History

Mike January 18, 20168 comments

The other day I was downloading an IDE for a new (to me) OS.  When I went to compile some sample code, it failed.  I went onto a forum, where I was told "if you read the release notes you'd know that the peripheral libraries are in a legacy download".  Well damn!  Looking back at my previous versions I realized I must have done that and forgotten about it.  Everything changes, and keeping up with it takes time and effort.

When I first started with microprocessors we had ROMs which had BASIC and the ability to read a cassette tape.  Then came the floppy disk and a new set of ROMs.  When UV erasable PROMs came out it was awesome.  Having the ability to turn around a code test in 20 minutes really sped up the process and allowed a lot more capability in an embedded system.

Today we complain if it takes longer than 30 seconds to program a 2 Meg flash based processor.  The more ideas we can try in an hour, the sooner we can get a great product on the market.  I think it is worth a few minutes every week to think about where you are, how you got there and where you are going.  What you do today is going to be ancient history pretty soon.  

Some of you went to work today riding on a train that went over bridges built by Romans over 2000 years ago.  A tremendous amount of effort and expense went into building those bridges precisely because they were expected to last forever.  While slaves may have built the bridges, engineers designed them.  At the time there was no thought their work would be obsolete because technology just did not change that fast.

Today's bridges are bigger, longer and carry far more weight than anything the Romans could have imagined.  But they need to be replaced every 75 to 100 years simply because iron is not stone.  This is not a bad thing - as we learn more about quantum mechanics we learn how materials behave at the atomic level and we create new materials - lighter, stronger and more flexible than ever before.

The concept of meta-materials for electromagnetic fields has gone from laboratory curiosities to real applications.  Why not think of meta-materials for clothing or mechanical structure?  We need something better than we know about today to build a space elevator.  The joke about quantum mechanics being people who work with atoms won't be funny any more.  It will just be engineering.

I have a kid who wants to be a neuroengineer.  Five years ago that did not even exist as a profession.  Connecting computers directly to the brain is no longer science fiction.  Do I really want an autonomous car or do I want absolute control with the ability to "feel" every sensor?  I'm not sure yet - but I'm sure I'll have the choice.

Unfortunately there are some things which don't change but should.  Take the percentage of women in engineering.  For the last 20 years it has gone from 8% to 11%.  The world has a lot of problems.  It needs a lot more engineers.  Males and females think differently and it has enabled the species to survive for millions of years.  If we are going to feed some 9 billion people, keep them healthy and ensure decent living standards we need 50% of engineers to be women.  

I've quit several jobs because I felt the people I worked for did not treat me respectfully.  Twice as many women graduate with engineering degrees as there women in engineering jobs.  Simply because they are not respected.  This attitude has to become ancient history. 

Take a few minutes and think not just about what you do, but how you do it.  You are changing the way the world works, that's your job.  And the way we do our jobs is changing too, as I found out the hard way. Changing technology is easy.  Changing society is hard.  The reason it is hard is because we have to change ourselves. 

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Comment by EdNutterJanuary 20, 2016
What I found interesting lately is that, though we are using new programming languages and faster processors, NASA needs to find a FORTRAN programmer to continue the Voyager program. Here on Earth, we could just swap parts to something more current, but there is no way to do that with Voyager. After a while, the technology becomes outdated and sent to a museum, but how long should things remain viable?
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Comment by drmikeJanuary 20, 2016
A really good question. I think the answer is "as long as we need it". When we forget things, as a society we will "rediscover" what was once forgotten if we need it again. My favorite story is the US Navy trying to send out a sailing ship - it had to be towed back to port because nobody knew how to actually work the rigging! In general though - I think economics is the fundamental driver. When it costs too much, we will forget about it.
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Comment by sidekickJanuary 20, 2016
At my last work place (A semiconductor company), the Founder and at that time head of India Operations was a woman. For last 10 mon working in an Eastern European country, where I see rather very few Female developers (Almost none in the field of Electronics/Hardware). I think the gender disparity is comparatively less in India. This trend is also shown in the Stackoverflow's developer survey 2015 [1]. Quoting from stackoverflow "Developers in India are 3-times more likely to be female than developers in the United States.".
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Comment by sidekickJanuary 20, 2016
Some nasty typo mistake there :( and the missing link [1] below

[1] http://stackoverflow.com/research/developer-survey-2015
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Comment by timelypestFebruary 17, 2016
There was an article in wired about this a while ago - http://www.wired.com/2014/08/silicon-valley-sexism/
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Comment by drmikeJanuary 20, 2016
Awesome! With all the problems India has with women's rights that is simply amazing. I hope that spreads around the world.
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Comment by drmikeFebruary 4, 2016
It's true that we have not physically changed in the last 20,000 years. I like the basic principles of Knowles, it seems like an accurate observation. But I would argue the number of negative ideas is actually decreasing. The total number of ideas is increasing at an exponential rate, and most of those are "ways to make money". You can't do that very well being negative.

Crossing the boundary from child learning to adult learning happens in college for sure. If you aren't self directed, you can't do well.
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Comment by drmikeFebruary 5, 2016
As the famous quote said "lies go around the world twice before truth puts its boots on." Truth is big and heavy and slow. But it eventually crushes the lies. That is why civilisations collapse - too many people believe too many lies. History is great to look back on. It is a pain to live through. Science is supposed to be different - once we find the right answer we are supposed to forget the wrong ones. We're human - it is not so easy to do. That's not quite the same thing, but it helps explain why it takes so long for things to change.

Business that wants to stay around for a long time has to deal with truth. Fly by night operations don't. I'd say the damping function on negative ideas is pretty high. Definitely no fun to deal with while they are around.

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