Tag Archives: history

The Evolution of the Bit

What would the reaction be like if we could go back in time to the 50s to tell computer researchers that, yes, not only do we have more powerful computers than anything they could imagine–and we carry them around in our pockets–but that we spend the majority of our usage talking to one another in little text chunks and playing games.  Seeing as our phones are likely orders of magnitude more advanced than what folks in the 60s used to ship people to the moon, it only makes sense that the main usage for our iPhones and Androids is to hurl little aviary missiles at the digital equivalent of Lincoln Logs.

Would it blow their minds to learn of the vast server farms that we run or the coverage of 3g connectivity? Wireless Xbox controllers?  Accelerometers in Wiimotes? The consumer-available motion capture technology in the Xbox Kinect? Could they even imagine the flood of cheap processing, memory and storage that made all of this possible? Would they understand how much we rely on it?  Hell, I haven’t used a phone book in at least a decade. Imagine all this from the perspective of a time when computers were the size of a small house and processing the motion of a peripheral to update a mouse cursor on a display would have been too much computational overhead. A “waste of cycles.”

I had an electronics teacher who, in addition to working in the industry, also worked for a while at NASA, teaching radar to astronauts. One day, he told the class about a day in the lab where everyone gathered around a display and watched as one letter at a time blipped up on the screen in slow succession; someone was sending them a message from a remote location.  It was the first time anyone in the room had ever seen anything like it.

Despite being raised on technology (my parents joke that I was born with a Nintendo controller in my hand), four areas of computation still amaze me:

  • Touch screens: Until we get implants and equal rights for cyborgs, there’s not much we can do to remove the barriers between computers and humans, but this was huge.  Touching things is just human nature.
  • Speech recognition: This one goes both ways, text -> speech and speech -> text. Another barrier knocked over, one that makes computers more like us, and is only in its infancy.  If I could go back in time, computational linguistics would be a fascinating career choice.
  • Drivers, hardware / software interaction: despite my years as a computer user and programmer, somehow it still twiddles my mind that on some fundamental level, these 1s and 0s interact with physical things.
  • Virtualization: The guys in 1950s lab coats were so proud of their room-sized computers.  Imagine their faces when we tell them, “Oh yeah?  Well, we have computers that run entirely inside of other computers,” like some kind of binary turducken.

Where do we go from here?  Is there a limit to Moore’s Law? If we look at what has happened in the last fifty years, can we even predict what our digital lives will be like in another fifty?  Or even another ten?  We’ve come a long way from the period I call, “Geocities, 1999,” where the only dynamic content was the animated GIFs we all loved, then hated, and now love again, thanks to Tumblr.

Portrait Of The University

Portrait Of The University

Old photos from university life.  Doesn’t quite seem the same any longer, eh?

Tea and Spices

Was thinking yesterday about tea and spices.  Specifically, about how people used to invest a lot of money in filling huge wooden ships full of tea and sailing it around.  Same thing with spices.  They were considered valuable treasures.

Nowadays, I can walk into the grocery store and buy a box of tea for $2.  Likewise, when even a Waffle House has a pepper shaker, you know its value as a commodity is essentially nil.

We Live In Amazing Times

I watched the launch of Atlantis from my desk at work yesterday and thought to myself: We live in amazing times.  It feels like “the future” now.

We as a race can shoot people into space on large rockets.  We’ve gotten pretty good at it.

On top of that, even though I can’t go to the launch myself, I can pull up a live video feed of it on my computer as if it’s nothing. A few clicks and bingo, more information on it–including text, audio, and video–than I could ever hope to consume.  And anyone can do it.

I’m thinking back to a TV series that James Burke did called Connections. We can thank credit and spoiled food for giving us spaceflight.

Atlantis space shuttle

Image credit: NASA

Checking In And A Small Roadtrip Into History



I’m not sure how it’s the middle of March already.

Took a road trip up to Virginia around the turn of the month.  Five days of driving, historic sights, friends and music on the ipods.

We took a walk through the historic section of Williamsburg, VA, though we ended up skipping most of the museums in the interest of time and money.  I try to imagine living back in that time and cannot:  doing everything ourselves, chopping wood for heat and cooking, no wrappers, no plastic.  We’ve come too far and become too comfortable for that to ever work.  I look around my room and mentally subtract everything that would not exist.

Even the windows have plastic in them.