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Friday, 27 May 2016


Of course, fiber optics = back engineered from the UFO crash at Roswell!

My grandmother lived from before the invention of the internal combustion engine to the space shuttle. In my adult lifetime, I have used state of the art computers with 4kb of memory recording to tape drives through to modern multi terabyte machines performing gigaflops of calculations. In a far shorter time, digital imaging has effectively rendered film nothing more than a creative choice, if it remains available at all. With luck I will live to see practical quantum computing and no doubt light-field imaging or similar will replace present digital cameras, maybe even also controlled fusion power (although fusion is always 50 years away). But we still can't feed the world or protect or preserve our natural environment. One way or the other, it's going to be interesting.

". . . one billion telephone calls simultaneously, in both directions. Twenty times as much data."

Isn't digital compression part of the difference? Is it really twenty times the data or is it just twenty times as many calls, with fewer data per call? Downgraded voice quality is everywhere these days.

And of course Nuclear Forces still depend on 8" floppy disks:

Phone calls? Who makes phone calls? How many TEXTS can that sucker transmit?
I'm going through a bankers box full of my negatives in glassine envelopes, some shot in the 1970s. If I did a high resolution scan of all the clipped negs (newspaper shooters editing technique, using a hole punch on the film edge to identify keepers.), I figure they would all fit on a 64 gig SD card.

Re the short time from the Wright Flyer to Apollo 11 ("It's that we did it in such a short span of time...well within a single human lifetime."). It may have been a single human lifetime but it's sadly unlikely men would have been walking on the moon in 1969 without three rather large (and lifetime shortening) wars - WWI, WWI and the cold war.


>> the limit is about four zettabytes (ZB)

Is this a rate (ZB/?), or is there a physical change of property based on usage?

That 4 ZBps number is interesting. It's a few million times the number I've seen quoted previously for the theoretical bandwidth of single-mode fiber, which is ~1 PBps. See here for a discussion:


I wonder what assumptions went in to calculating that 4 ZBps value...

After zetabyts come yottabytes. I like yottabytes. I mean I just like saying the word, "Yottabytes." Yottabytes, yottabytes, yottabytes . . .see I feel better already.

How much is it? Well it's (wait for it). . . a yot of bytes.

I live in Austin and am lucky enough to live in one of the first zip codes that got Google Fiber. As a commercial photographer than regularly send multi giga bytes of images to clients, this is a game changer. Bye, bye mailing flash drives. Using services like Wetransfer.com I never send flash drives any more unless I'm sending a massive gigapan and then I have to send a hard drive anyway.

You mean we're past two Dixie cups and a string?

I'm only 67 but was 9 when they took out the crank phone and put in a Western Electric 500 dial phone in 1958. Too bad time travel into the past is not possibile (it would take away free will) it would be fun to go back to experience some of these pivotal events.

Mike --

Leave it to the economists to be the contrarians: we think that the pace of technical change -- at least as measured by how it alters everyday lives -- has SLOWED in the past 150 years. Most of us could exchange lives -- with some acclimation! -- with an urban/suburban family of 100 years ago. We both work for wages, buy food at the market, drink reliably potable water, consume daily world-wide mass media, wear store-bought clothes, pay rent or mortgage, travel among cities, often rub-elbows with multi-cultural immigrants, heck, even pay income taxes, etc. Neither of us could easily do so with a family 100 years earlier; 1800 was a vastly different world in terms of all the dimensions i cited. Many people never traveled 40 miles from where they were born.

In terms of ones day-to-day life, the biggest technical change since my boyhood affecting my life (born in 1954) is medicine in my view. The reduction in middle-aged male cardiac arrests alone is stunning. All these other technologies, while important advances, for the most part do existing things better/faster/cheaper. At least that is what the grumpy economist sez.

-- gary ray

The space flight certainly is impressive in happening so soon after the first Wright Brothers flight. More complexity, to be sure.

But consider that the curved dash Olds was built only two years before the Wright Brothers flight. From ground to air travel in a couple of years still amazes me.

The development of technology in the last 150 years has been incredibly fast and we now take it as granted. Your story about fiber optics made me realize that the 4G netowrking on my phone is now so fast that I don't bother to look for WiFi anymore. Going back to the early 90s it was revolutionary to be able to do digital voice calls wirelessly and soon came text messages. Now realtime chat is overtaking all other forms of communication.

I think we all have personal stories concerning changing technology. My great-grandfather wrote of seeing transportation evolve in his lifetime from canals, through railways, the automobile and commercial aviation.

One of my favorite quotes on the subject is related to Joe's comment concerning the Wright Brothers and Neil Armstrong. Dayton, Ohio, native (the Wright Brothers and Neil Armstrong were also from Ohio) and comic genius Jonathan Winters had this to say:

"Something I'll always remember -- when I was a kid, I shook hands with Orville Wright. Forty years later, I shook hands with Neil Armstrong. The guy that invented the airplane and the guy that walked on the moon. In a lifetime, that's kinda wild when you think about it."

My father started his career as a telegraph operator in the 1930s, worked on the first telephone submarine cables, and lived to see the first fibre optic transatlantic fibre cables which started in 1988, about 10 years after he retired.

In his 70s, he was given an IBM PC that wasn't working. He fixed it, taught himself DOS, how to program in Basic and fly the MS flight simulator.

He would have loved digital cameras, which he only missed out on by a couple of years, and smart phones would have amazed him.

That first cable he worked with had a data rate, in morse, of about 4 bits per second. So much for zettabits.

Quite a lot of progress for a generation.

Surely Dr. Keck and Mr. Desparrois were discussing rate rather than quantity? I would think even copper wire could transfer 4ZB... eventually.

Even in my half century--microwave ovens, cell phones, mp3's, selfie sticks... But I can't help thinking how a tremendous number of humans still have no access to those airplanes, not to mention indoor plumbing, refrigerators, antibiotics, etc... Unfortunately, one result of these astonishing leaps in technology is an astonishing disparity in living standards across the human race.

Er, sorry to be such a wet blanket today, Mike.

Yes, the twentieth century was amazing. Or at least seems so. Perhaps science and technology folk might feel differently considering the work that went into all those steps.

Of all the technology that I've (b. early 1950's) witnessed, what surprised me most was Wi-Fi. Not sure why, but being internet connected and transferring photographs without wire (and through walls!) was astounding. It took me months to accept the immutability of Wi-Fi technology.

PS Also, those gigantic planes we now take for granted; how do they lift? (I know how, just sayin'.)

Yes .... I often think about the changes that have taken place in the "blink of an eye." I am about to return to Ithaca N.Y. for my 50th college reunion ( electrical engineering undergrad) .... Over the course of those 5 decades the changes are immense .... We can now send and store vast amounts of data ..... However - how can we judge what is important - how can we use all this stuff?? In the end it is still a pleasure to look at a good print - nothing needed but eyes, brain and heart.

My paternal grandmother told stories of seeing Halley's comet as a young lady and of taking her first automobile ride. Born in 1890, she lived to 100, when Space Shuttle missions seemed routine.

I recall sitting on a plane awaiting takeoff in Los Angeles for a non-stop flight to London on the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first flight. I knew the occasion even before the captain announced it over the PA. I even marveled at how it had been so long since Armstrong and Aldrin both became the first men on the moon. Half again as long as the interval between Kitty Hawk and the Sea of Tranquility. How long would Los Angeles to London have taken in 1903? Weeks, at a minimum, perhaps months. Would a passenger liner even make the trip in December?

I believe that Buzz prefers to be referred to that way, that he and Neil Armstrong both simultaneously became the first men on the moon, Neil was the first to set foot.


Mike, that would be 4 Zettabytes per second, correct?

Given enough time you could transmit Zettabytes of data through a copper wire...

[Correct. Fixed now, thanks. --Mike]

We think that "technology" is all about computer chips, but that is only one facet of technology. While many think that the rapid development and continued improvement of the computer chip makes for a rapidly changing environment, I beg to differ. I think that the biggest generation to see technology upheaval was my grandfather's.

He went from root-cellar to refrigerator, horse to automobile, steam locomotive to diesel, the first airplane, the moonwalk, indoor plumbing (hence outhouse to indoor loo), wood stove to electric stove, Kerosene lamp to electric light, telegraph to telephone to cell phone (he was still alive when they first came out), radio to TV, the computer, and more.

The impact on the quality of life of these changes was truly profound. Truly. Can we say the same for the latest iteration of camera or cellphone?

I realized something about another amazing technological process recently. While we can argue for the importance of the phonograph, it was magnetic audio recording that completely changed our orientation to musical art. Most music we hear today cannot exist in a live performance in the form we are used to hearing — overdubbing, and other forms of editing have transformed it profoundly.

Yet, the entire life cycle of high quality magnetic audio tape recording was arguably barely more than a half century. Aside from a few retro practitioners today, it is basically dead and gone. I have students whose only knowledge of it is a faint memory of Sesame Street cassettes when they were in pre-school...

1979: Working my first job out of college I was spending 20 days a month traveling throughout North America schlepping a Texas Instruments Silent 700 terminal to connect to my company's proprietary time-sharing computer with its built-in 300 baud acoustic coupler and thermal printer. Woo hoo. Great when it worked. "PLEASE LOGIN:".

2016: I was watching a crew install four strands of micro-fiber optic cable (the diameter of a human hair) into my home that can support data streaming at many orders of magnitude beyond 300 baud. And all the devices in my home connect to that network wirelessly.

Yeah, that's still very amazing to me.

The film stock story reminds me of a (possibly apocryphal) one that has a news film cameraman saying to a politician, who is making a speech: "I'm running low on film so could you just give me a nod when you're about to say something interesting."

Another timely post! I just signed up for the NBN (Australia's attempt to catch up to the rest of the world's broadband speeds). The technicians will disconnect our copper line next week and then that's it - fibre from here on out! As a photographer, I can't wait for the increase in upload speeds.

My mother, who is 79, grew up in a house with no mains electricity. She wasn't poor by any means -- they had a maid I think, and employed a fair number of people on the farm -- and lived in a first-world country (England), just not in a city or substantial town.

When her mother was born infant mortality was getting on for 20%.

It really is astonishing both how fast things have changed and, in a way, how they haven't.

When I was doing my Ph.D., back in 1984, I had to build a few logic gates chip, with a few transistors each one as a requirement to pass the Microelectronic Lab class. The lab itself was donated to the Univ. of Arizona by Motorola and was originally used by the company to cook the first Motorolas 6800 microprocessors, with a count of approx 4100 transistors. At that time the industry was already doing much better than that, Intel had the 80286 and Motorola the 68020, both around 150 thousand to 200 thousand transistors. In 2014 the A8 chip in the iPhone 6 has around 2 billion transistors, and today the largest chips are surpassing the 10 billion count. The transistor size has shrink from around 2000 nanometers back in 1984 to 14 nanometers today. Although I have been designing chips along all my career, special purpose chips for research mainly, the story of this short time incredible development is mind-boggling to me.

You know Mike, sometimes you're fierce interesting. I'm scratching my head figuring out what to do about a presentation to my son's class (he's 11) as I tend to do near end of year each year. Now I'm on to something. Thanks.

The technological advancements of the 20th century are truly astounding, but that was then and this is now.
American education is devolving at every level except for the children of the already-rich; corporations pursue stockholders' short-term return on investment to the exclusion of everything else and there are no Bell Labs or PARC today.
And entrenched institutions are active politically and in the information battlespace to halt progress -- think energy.
I won't be around at the end of the 21st century, but I fear what history will record for it.

What an astonishing breadth of commenters' knowledge and experience Mike. A pleasure to partake of, great reading on a Saturday morning. Thank you everybody!

Karamanoğlu brings up the importance of Ohio in space travel, and I'm reminded of an exchange from Stephen Colbert's Better Know A District feature, when interviewing a representative from a fighting district in Ohio. He asked "More astronauts have come from Ohio than any other state. What is it about Ohio that makes people want to leave the planet?"


It is a thrill to see how far we've come in such a short time (a blink, really, in terms of how we measure time in astronomy, for example).

Yet is is important to not forget that we have utterly failed to disseminate this incredible technology equally to everyone. Just one example is how many people on our planet today have no electric lighting.

The good news is: we can change this. Check out what these guys are doing: http://gravitylight.org/


My first job, post graduation, was junior member of a team of four, tasked with devising a way to controlling the amount of petrol to inject into a car's intake manifold as general function of 2 measured inputs. After many abortive blue-sky ideas, my colleague Duncan Hodgson decided that it might be possible to encode a look-up table economically using a matrix fabricated using MOS technology.
Just a few weeks later, National Semiconductor introduced the first MOS ROM, exactly what was needed.
Thus was the very first digital car engine control born. I remember triple-checking and sending off the deck of cards to be programmed. 256 words of 7 bits was just enough to do the job, with interpolation for the in-betweens. It was shown by Lucas on a Triumph 2.5 at the 1970 London motor show. Heady memories indeed.

The real game-changer is Artificial Intelligence and the realization of Deep Learning where the computer can learn on its own. Today computers are better than people at: Chess, Jeopardy and Go with much more yet to come.

There are AI programs that replace the Radiologist in reviewing patient X-Rays and are as good or better than a human. These AI programs will replace drivers in cars and a large number of people working in financial services.

I recommend reading Klaus Schwab, an engineer and economist, who writes that we are entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution and describes the profound impact that these new technologies will have on our lives.

My $150 phone has a wireless data transfer rate faster than the fastest fiber optic data rates of the commercial data pipes I sold for MCI in the 80's. Erlangs have been replaced by ELOCs (Entire Library Of Congress) as a measuring stick...

When Ctein and I were writing our novel "Saturn Run" we talked about things that *haven't* happened -- how many people in 1969 would have believed that almost 50 years later we'd be no further out in space that a kludged space station, and that after the first series of moon visits, we would have never returned, much less have tried tor Mars...

The most important stuff is about to happen, or is just underway, and IMHO is a lot more important than a moonwalk. A couple decades ago, a hip replacement was pretty experimental. We now have routine hip and knee replacements, routine cataract surgery, several types of organ transplants, are making progress on nerve regrowth...if we could find a way to prevent brain senility, then life limits might be greatly extended. I wouldn't be surprised if my children live to a healthy 120 or so...

I just wanted to say that as a kid who grew up in Omaha, Mike Plews was one of my heroes and I"m pretty sure I met him in the early 1970's when Loveland Elementary made the news. I introduced myself to all the camera guys, so there's a good chance I met Mike and if I didn't, he still counts.

Film, yes there is nothing like it. Having shoot a "Gangster" film in 8mm in grade school and later 16mm with a Bolex, the pinnacle for me was seeing Lawrence of Arabia in 70mm. Here's to Tarantino, Nolan, Anderson and others still carrying the torch in the digital age.

I cut my teeth in 1/2" B&W EIA videotape, 3/4" Umatic, 1" Type C, BetacamSP and later D2, DVCam, DVCPro, DigiBeta. Quite a work out lugging a BVU 110 3/4" deck or BVW 35 Betacam tethered to a Plumbicon Ikegami HL 79E on your shoulder! There's nothing like the sound of the scanners of a triplet of Ampex VPR6's cuing up in pre-roll to hit the Mark IN point through an ADO, Vista and a Chyron. Somehow it all worked like magic. These days, I just edit on my Macbook Pro under a tree!

I worked at Bell Labs involved with the 5ESS switch, the first electronic telephone switch, and one of the largest software projects ever. That project was a milestone.

I'm still keeping my Macintosh SE/30, Startac phone, tube guitar amps, tube monoblocks, and JBL 4311's as reminders of how far we have come.

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