We’re not very good at predicting the future

04-21-jetsons_full_600When I was a kid I read a lot of science fiction.  I mean, a lot of science fiction.  I was fascinated by the creative and interesting story lines and by descriptions of what the future might look like.

One thing predicted by science fiction back in the ’50s and ‘60s was self-driving cars.  But if I recall correctly, every self-driving car in those stories had the same limitation:  they all had to follow a wire embedded in the pavement or some other guide to determine where to go.

Fast-forward 50 years to 2012, and self-driving cars actually exist:  Google has a self-driving car that has driven 300,000 miles on regular roads in real traffic without an accident when under computer control.  The difference – and this is a huge difference – between the Google car and the one predicted by science fiction:  there’s no wire in the road.  The car looks at the road, the cars around it, pedestrians, bicycles, traffic lights; all the stuff we look at (or should look at) when we humans drive and decides when to start, stop, turn, speed up, slow down.

OK, it also looks at GPS data.  I’ll give you that is an external input.  But a lot of humans do, to; and if I was going to some place I’d never been before I’d probably at least look at a map before started out.  But that’s a huge difference from following a wire in the road.

So, where did the authors of the ‘50s and ‘60s go wrong in predicting the future?  They couldn’t imagine that a computer could be made small enough to fit in a car.  Back then, computers were the size of a house, weighed tons, and used enough electricity for a small factory.  They couldn’t foresee the integrated CPU that would eventually lead to today’s cell phone having more computing power that existed in the entire world in 1960.  Shoot, Gordon Moore wouldn’t even publish his paper on Moore’s Law (predicting ever more powerful computer chips) until 1965.

And yet, here we are with self-driving cars that contain computers almost unimaginable 50 years ago.

As amazing as that is, here’s what I wonder:  what will things be like in another 50 years?  What are we missing now because we don’t think it’s possible?  Faster-than-light space flight?  Star Trek-style transporters?  Anti-gravity shoes?

Maybe I’ll finally get that flying car I’ve always wanted!

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Father’s Day, 2012

This is a hammer.  (No, really?)

Specifically, it’s a Stanley Tool Works 16oz framing hammer.  At 16oz, it’s a little light for a framing hammer, but I don’t have the arm strength to use a heavier 20-32oz framing hammer.  Still, it’s an incredibly useful tool, probably the most useful tool in my toolbox.

I’m pretty sure I had this hammer in college. I may have used it in the original improvements (such as they were) we made on the original 777 Techwood Theta Xi house. I know I had it after college, first in Arizona and later in Colorado.  I can’t begin to count the projects where I’ve used this tool:  when I finished the basement, built the storage shed, put up the privacy fence, remodeled the bathrooms, laid tile in the kitchen, build the camp box; the list is almost endless.  There’s not much around the house that I’ve done or built where I didn’t use this hammer.

It was a gift from my dad, years ago.  I don’t recall the situation; in fact, it may not have been anything special.  He did that with a number of tools he gave me.  Just out of the blue he’d give me something he thought might be useful.

Sometimes the things we pick up in life are like that.  We don’t see them as all that important or useful at the time, but as life goes by we begin to use them when the need arises without thinking about where we picked them up.  When our son was on the way we needed a changing table but we didn’t have a lot of free cash.  I thought, “I can make one from some plywood using my saw and hammer and some paint”, and so I did.  We used it for years through both kids.

Having tools like a framing hammer in your toolbox gives a kind of confidence to face life. It gives you a sense of, “I can do this.  I can fix this problem.  I can take care of myself and the others in my family. I can help other people.”

I think my dad knew that when he gave it to me.  He knew I’d need to be on my own someday, and that I’d need a toolbox filled with useful tools to make it in this world. So one day he gave me a hammer.  Now I think of him every time I use it (which is often), and I’m thankful that he did.

Thanks, dad.  And happy Father’s Day.

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“I don’t get no respect!”

These “What People Think I Do” picture montages are popular on Facebook, so I’m glad someone created one for engineers:

Sadly, this is my life.

Except that it’s Excel instead of Word, the last panel is pretty much true.

It didn’t start out like that.  When I started grad school, we got a pep talk from the dean of graduate students. He commented that, “Engineering is one of the oldest and most respected professions known to man: most respected, second oldest.”  I thought engineering was cool (I still do!).  But I don’t think the public shares that perception.

I think that one problem with the perception of engineering by the public at large is there are very, very few portrayals of engineers in popular media. For example, you can’t channel surf for 5 minutes without coming across a show about lawyers, doctors, police, or actors, but there are almost no TV shows about engineers. (Is there one? I couldn’t think of any off-hand.) The same is true of movies, although there are a few exceptions. (“Apollo 13” comes to mind as one of the best.)

Two big differences between those other professions and engineering is that 1) people encounter those professions on a regular basis and thus know a bit about what those people do, and 2) the story lines about those professions usually focus on the interactions of the characters with other people (think, “Gray’s Anatomy“); the law, medicine, etc. is almost incidental to the story.

Engineering, on the other hand, is mostly about solving technical problems. Yes, I know about the people-related issues, but let’s be honest: most of us got into the profession because we liked the science, not because we wanted to interact with people. That makes our profession uninteresting (at best) or incomprehensible (at worst) to a lot of people. Indeed, when people ask me, “What do you do?” I’m kind of stuck: how do explain what an engineer who works for a high-performance ASIC company does? Usually I just say, “I work for a computer chip company”, and move on to another topic before their eyes glaze over.

That’s not the greatest sales pitch for engineering as a profession, but what can you do?

*     *     *

BTW, the picture for this article came from this blog, where I also posted most of this article as a comment.

Also, my apologies to Rodney Dangerfield :-)

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Happy 40th Birthday, 4004!

Ok, this could get really geeky really quick, but I’ll try to keep it readable.

It's not much to look at, is it?

Forty years ago, on November 15, 1971, Intel ran the first ad for a new type of integrated circuit:  the 4004.  Why is this important?  Because it was the first commercially available integrated CPU.

“What’s a CPU?”  It’s that thing inside your computer or smart phone that makes it more than an expensive paperweight.  It’s the brains that run the programs that let you read this article.  Most people who use computers don’t really care about what the CPU is or what it does, but for those of us in the business it’s almost unbelievable the progress we’ve made in the past 40 years.

“What kind of progress?”  The 4004 was a tiny, tiny CPU.  Not so much in size:  the package (in the picture above) was about an inch long.  The package for  the CPU in your computer is probably 1.5 inches square; not that much physically larger.  The chip of silicon in the 4004 (not visible, but under the gold lid on the package in the picture) is about a quarter-inch square, about the size of a pencil eraser.  The chip of silicon in your computer is probably about an half-inch square; again, not that much larger.

But thanks to Moore’s Law and the shrinking of the size of components on a chip, the CPU in your computer probably has in the neighborhood of 150,000 more components that the 4004.  Another way of looking at it:  if the CPU in your computer had been built using the same process as the 4004, it would about 8 feet square.  That’s not going to fit on your desk (or in your smart phone!) very well.

Thanks to the miracle of engineering, the 4004 led to the 8008, then the 8080, then the 8086, the 80286, … and so on to the Intel Core 2 Duo you might be using to read this (if you have a current, higher-performance computer).  It has been a slow, methodical process getting to this point; one that we tend to take for granted.  Seriously:  if your under the age of 30, computers have been ubiquitous for your entire life!  Only us old guys can remember what is was like 40 years before the 4004, when computers filled entire buildings and yet were less powerful than my phone.

And yet, there you are:  reading this article on a computer that has more horsepower that all the computers in the world combined at the time the 4004 came out.  What will the next 40 years bring?

FYI:  If you’re curious, The Register has a really nice article on the 4004 and the development of CPUs since then.  It’s a rather geeky read, though, so be forewarned.

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What’s wrong with America: Part 286

Just in case you were wondering if the government ever over-regulates Americans, here’s the latest from the geniuses at the Department of Labor and their effort to destroy the American family farm improve the safety of children on farms (from “Critics fear new Labor Department rules will take the family out of family farms” in today’s Denver Post):

Oh, the horror!

Nonagriculture workers under 18 would be banned from grain elevators, silos, livestock exchanges and auctions.  And the provisions also would stop children younger than 15 from working near “sexually mature” livestock, including bulls and boars or nursing cows and sows.

Well, that would pretty much kill the FFA and 4-H, not to mention youth participation in the National Western Stock Show in Denver.  God forbid children see a sow nurse her piglet, or a cow her calf!  They might be scarred for life!  And as for where the piglets and the calf came from … well, their precious little psyches couldn’t handle it.  And no raising rabbits, because they breed like … well, rabbits.

Seriously, is there anything that the government doesn’t feel like it needs to regulate?  For our own good, of course (“Think of the children!”).  I wonder if the people writing these regulations have ever actually been on a farm.

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Encouraging kids to become engineers with office supplies

I commented on an article entitled “What Were Your Childhood Inspirations” on the Engineer Blogs site today with the following observations that 1) point out my age, and 2) emphasize my nerdiness:

I’m not exactly sure whether my parents pushed me into engineering or whether they merely encouraged my interests, but I always had science toys around growing up. So, I had Erector sets, blocks, Tinker Toys, and chemistry sets (back when chemistry sets actually contained chemicals!).

The survey list was undoubtedly created by someone much younger than me, since it left out several staples of my youth: Heathkits; model cars, planes, and ships; and “Things of Science”. Of course, some are no longer even available, and others are sadly out of favor with kids today.

A manila folder.  Duh.

Oh, the possibilities ...

But by far my coolest “toy” was … manila folders. My dad picked them out of the trash at work brought stacks and stacks of these home for me. I then colored, cut, and glued these into spaceships, ships, and Star Trek phaser and communicator models (among other things). The kids of things I could build was practically unlimited (although objects curved in two dimensions were impossible). Based on this experience, I should have been something other than an electrical engineer (mechanical? civil? architect?), but the experience taught me much that I’ve used since: the value of having a plan before you start out, there are limitations to what is physically possible, and things can be use for tasks other than for what they’re designed, for example.

Of course, this hobby has been a source of endless mirth for my children, who have gently mocked me for years about building paper spaceships instead of having a social life (something which, of course, was not entirely true). I reply by reminding them that it helped me learn skills that put food on the table, a roof over their head, and send them to college.

It’s been a long time since I turned a manila folder into a model of the Star Trek shuttle craft, but I still can’t pick one up without thinking, “Hmm … I could make a model of an X-wing fighter out of this …”

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9:45 a.m. EST on December 12, 1965

Where were you at 9:45 a.m. EST on December 12, 1965?

Gemini 6 launch abort


What?  You don’t remember?  Maybe you weren’t even born yet?  I remember exactly where I was:  watching the launch of Gemini 6 on television in my parent’s living room in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Or more accurately, watching the attempted launch of Gemini 6.  After the Titan rocket engines had ignited but before the rocket lifted off, an umbilical cable fell off causing the rocket engines to shut down.  Procedure dictated that the crew was supposed to eject from the capsule, but since in tests of the ejection seats the test dummy had been smashed against the unopened capsule hatch, Wally Schirra decided to take his chances that everything was going to be OK if they stayed where they were.  Seeing the aborted launch I remember thinking at the time, “I’m not sure what just happened, but that can’t possibly be good.”

Neil Armstrong sets foot on the moon.

"That's one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind."

How about 10:56 p.m. EDT on July 21, 1969?  No?  I was watching Neil Armstrong step off the landing pad of Eagle, the Lunar Landing Module of Apollo 11, and say, “That’s one small step for man; one giant leap for mankind”.  I’m still amazed that my parents let me stay up that late.  Since it wasn’t a school night, I guess it was OK.

OK, how about 10:21 a.m. PST on April 14 1981.  Still no idea?  I was standing the conference room at ADR Ultrasound in Tempe, Arizona, the company I worked for after graduating from college. 

Columbia landing at Edwards AFB at the conclusion of STS-1.

"Well what do you know, the son-of-a-bitch works!"

We had set up a television on the conference table so we could watch the landing of the space shuttle Columbia at the end of the first space shuttle mission.  As one of my co-workers said at the time, “Well what do you know, the son-of-a-bitch works!”  Yes, it did.

I wanted to be an astronaut.  Almost every kid did when I was young.  It was new, it was exciting, it was adventuresome … in short, it was cool.

But then I got glasses in the 5th grade, and that was the end of that dream.  Back then, only military pilots could be astronauts, and military pilots had to have 20/20 vision.  So I was never going to be an astronaut.  But I didn’t lose interest in the space program:  I watched it from afar; encouraged by its successes, disappointed by its failures.  To me, it was still cool.

Launch of Atlantis on STS-135, the final space shuttle mission.

So sad.

Which brings us to 11:29 a.m. EDT on July 8, 2011, the launch of Atlantis on the final space shuttle mission, and (perhaps more significantly) the end of the nation’s manned space flight program.  I didn’t watch it; maybe I should have, but I couldn’t bring myself to.  Not so much because the shuttle is being retired:  it was a technology that had reached the end of its useful service life.  I understand that.  What makes me sad is that there’s no plan to replace it.

Yes, I know about SpaceX and the other private concerns that are developing manned space flight capability.  I’m quite encouraged by their work and the results they’re achieving, and I wish them well.  But I think there’s something missing in not sending men into space as a national effort.  It seems to me to be a sad comment on the state of the national psyche.

I can’t say that the space program was the only reason I chose engineering as a profession, but it had a big impact.  The space program made science cool, and since it was cool I studied it and loved it.  Other kids felt the same, and we’d build models of rockets or shoot off actual rockets in vacant lots.  Do kids even build models any more?  Would a national space program have the same effect now?  I wonder.  Maybe it’s too late and the United States has already passed a tipping point.  Maybe as we outsource manned space flight to the Russians and possibly later the Chinese it’s just another symptom of the diminished nation the United States is becoming.

I hope not.

Posted in Geekery, Personal, Politics | 1 Comment

OK, I’m addicted now

Worth Dying For by Lee ChildSo, I got to the grocery store to pick up a prescription and discover the pharmacy doesn’t open until 9:00 am.  It’s currently 8:45 am, so I have a choice:  drive home (5 minutes), do something for 5 minutes, then drive back (another 5 minutes).  Or, I could just hang out until the pharmacy opens.  I chose the second option.

To kill the time, I went to the book section and picked up the first thing that caught my eye:  Worth Dying For, a novel by an author I’d never heard of before: Lee Child.  By 9:00 am, I was hooked.  So much so, that I immediately went home and bought the Kindle version and spent every free minute over the next several days reading the rest of the book.

Since Worth Dying For is the fourteenth book in the series, I bought the first book (The Killing Fields) as soon as I finished, and pretty much read it straight through.  Then I stopped, because I do have to get other stuff to get done in my life.

Granted, these are “guilty pleasure” books; full of action and intrigue, but not particularly intellectual.  His writing style reminds me of Louis L’Amour, one of my other favorite authors:  he’s great at describing the scene and makes you feel like you’re really there; short on conversation and character development but long on action.  The hero of the series, Jack Reacher, is just a guy who wants to be left alone but isn’t afraid to use his unique talents to take care of himself and help others.  He’s the “everyman” that every guy wishes he could be.  He’s probably a sociopath since he kills and maims without remorse, but the people certainly deserve it (as they say in the South, “He needed killin’.” is a valid defense).

Guys will like these books, girls probably won’t.  If you like thrillers then Child is an author you may like, but be forewarned:  you may get hooked!

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Meet Yosemite Sam

Yosemite Sam, my Kindle. Yes, that's really what I call it. You have to name it something, so why not something interesting rather than the pedestrian "John's Kindle"?

I know the iPad is supposed to be the greatest thing since sliced bread, but since I got a Kindle for my birthday this year it’s clear that the Kindle is a better fit for me.  I wanted a device for doing precisely one thing:  reading books.  No games, no videos, no surfing the web; just reading.  For that activity, the Kindle is a half-pound of literary awesomeness.

Why do I say that?  Well, there are lots of reviews of the Kindle on-line, so I won’t repeat those here. Instead, here’s what I like about the Kindle.

It’s small.  Really small.  Even with a case, I can throw it in my computer bag and hardly know it’s there.  I can tuck it under my are when I go out to eat, and still be able to pick up my burrito and drink at Qdoba.

The battery lasts for freakin’ ever.  I’ve left it off the charger for over a week without getting below 75% of a full charge, and long reading sessions (6-8 hours) hardly cause the battery meter to move.  You could go on a trip for a week and forget your charger and as long as you left the radio off most of the time, you’d be fine.

E-ink makes a display that is perfect for reading.  It really does look like a printed page, and it works fine in full sunlight.  Admittedly, on the Kindle 2 it looks a bit like a dirty page, but it’s still quite readable.  The Kindle 3 is supposed to be better, but it’s perfectly acceptable.  Laying by the pool in Monterrey reading Cannery Row?  Oh yeah, perfect!

You can store a ton of books on it.  Want to carry the ESV Study Bible (a brick of a book if ever there was one) with you without getting a hernia?  No problem with the Kindle.  You can load up on books so that you always have something available to read.  And with a 3G connection to Amazon, you can always buy something new.

There is an amazing amount of free reading material available on-line from places like Feedbooks.  I’ve just barely scratched the surface of what’s available, but already I’ve been able to find some real jewels.

Finally, after you’ve used it for a few hours, you forget that you’re reading on an electronic device.  It really does disappear and allow you to connect with the author just like you were reading a physical book.

Except that it’s better than a book.  It always lays flat, so you can set it down to read it without it flopping closed and losing your place.  You can lay down and read without it being awkward and heavy to hold.  Want to mark a paragraph to remember later?  Use the joystick to mark the text then slurp it up on your computer later.

Then there’s this:  you’re reading a book on your Kindle at home, but then you get stuck at the doctor’s office because they’re running late and you’re really not into reading the August 2002 issue of Field and Stream.  No problem, just get out your Android phone , fire up the Kindle app, and pick up reading where you left off on the Kindle.  When you get home that evening, your Kindle has synced up with your phone and you can pick up where you left off at the doctor’s office.

See?  It’s better than a book!

OK, now for the negatives.  While it’s great, it’s not perfect.

My biggest complaint is that some authors (or publishers) just don’t get it.  Some books aren’t available on the Kindle, which complete mystifies me.  These day’s, it’s not like publishers are printing books by arranging individual letters by hand on a composing stick; the data exists on a computer somewhere so it’s not that hard to provide a Kindle version.

Of course, even if you do provide a Kindle version, you can still do it badly.  I’ve read a couple of books where either the formatting was terrible, or the footnotes weren’t hyperlinked into the text.  I’ve played around with formatting books for the Kindle, and this isn’t exactly rocket surgery, so these guys should get better software people.

Finally, my biggest pet peeve is that in some cases I’d actually like to buy the physical book to add to my library.  If I do that, why not throw in the Kindle version for a few extra bucks?  That way I can leave the physical book at home and read on the Kindle, and I still have the physical book to read after the zombie apocalypse.

But still, it’s a great way to read.  Having a Kindle has given me more opportunity to read (since there’s so much available, and it’s so easy to take with me), plus more encouragement to read (part of that is because it’s a gadget to play with).

So, it’s time to grab Yosemite Sam and go read!

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How to kill an elevator

You'd be tired too if you climbed the stairs a hundred time a day.The building I work in was originally built by Hewlett-Packard Company as a multi-purpose building:  it could be used as office space, or it could be used as manufacturing.  To allow use for manufacturing, there were some differences in the architecture from a standard office building:  the floors were much more substantial (to accommodate manufacturing equipment) and the ceilings were much higher (I’m guessing 15 feet or more).

One result of this is that although I work on the second floor, you have to climb two flights of stairs to get there, roughly equivalent to going up to the third floor.  For moving people, equipment, and supplies to the second floor, there were two large, heavy-duty elevators at each end of the building.  In the over 25 years I’ve worked here, I think I’ve taken the elevator may a couple dozen times, usually when I’m moving some equipment between floors.  But I probably go up and down between floors at least a dozen times a day:  going to meetings, to the cafeteria, to the credit union, and so forth.  I always take the stairs; I never take the elevator.  Almost none of the people I work with do either.

Since the company I work for doesn’t occupy the entire building, we decided to lease out half of the second floor to another company.  Because the building wasn’t designed to be subdivided, we have this awkward arrangement where we have their space, our space, and shared space.  One of these shared spaces is a stairwell and an elevator.

The company that leased the space employs mostly younger people:  I would guess that the vast majority are younger than 30.  This is in contrast to the people I work with, most of whom I would guess are 40 or older.

This leads to a curious situation:  the kids (well, they look like kids to me!) from the other company almost always take the elevator.  Often a group of three or four of us middle-aged guys will arrive in the shared space at the same time as three or four of the kids; while we head for the stairs, they head for the elevator.  I find it ironic that we’ll traverse the stairs to the second floor, at the same time as the kids, who should literally be able run circles around us, will take the elevator.

Well, the elevator wasn’t happy about this.  When the other company moved in it went from ten to twenty trips between floors each day, to a hundred or more trips.  After several months it had had enough and started getting stuck between floors.  It’s now out of commission for the foreseeable future, and kids have joined us middle-aged guys on the stairs.

It’ll do the young whipper-snappers some good.

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